Relative Confusion: Stepmothers, Strife and the Value of Estate Planning

Bexley Beaumont Partner Heather Roberts explains that a recent High Court ruling involving the children of a “hopelessly disorganised” businessman and their stepmother has underlined the practical, emotional and financial benefits of effective estate planning.

Many good jokes, it is said, have at their heart something of a grain of truth with the potential to make us feel slightly uneasy even as we laugh.

As a solicitor who has dealt with many contentious probate cases over the course of the last two decades, I understand the reality which lies behind the remark attributed to Ricky Gervais that "where there's a will, there's a relative".

All too often, sadly, differences which might have been harboured by family members without ever being aired suddently blow wide open when someone passes away.

As I told the Daily Telegraph in September last year, some feature individuals who may not have a strong case but are effectively trying their luck to see whether they might claim a share of the deceased's estate (

However, a number of other cases are not just the result of personal enmity but also due to the person who's died having failed to put their affairs in order.

I was reminded of that by a recent High Court ruling which pitted the children of the late businessman Graham Dines against his second wife (

The Times subsequently reported that the children already had a "strained" relationship with Helen Dines, partly because she had begun her relationship with their father when he was still married to their mother (

Mr Dines had run a car parts and paint company set up by his own father. When that firm was sold in the early 1990s for a seven-figure sum, Mr Dines and his business partner retained some of the properties which it owned.

He also set up a property investment company which acquired a number of apartments.

When Mr Dines died in 2002, a controlling interest in that company passed to two of his children, Louise and Elliott.

During the case, they claimed legal title in 11 properties which they said the company had bought but had been registered in Helen's name, along with £130,000 which she had transferred to herself from one of their father's bank accounts shortly before his death.

Mrs Dines had contested all the allegations, arguing for instance that the company had no beneficial interest in any of the properties at issue.

On the face of it, the matter appeared difficult enough to resolve.

It was complicated still further by an accountant's observation that Mr Dines was "hopelessly disorganised". He explained that Mr Dines didn't have a dedicated business bank account, meaning that his personal and business monies were not easily identified.

In addition, he made four wills relating to his personal and company assets during a five-year period from 2003 onwards, some of the contents of which were themselves disputed.

To all that, we can add that the judge in the case, Andrew Lenon KC, concluded that much of the statements provided by Mr Dine's children "appeared to have no forensic function other than to cast Helen in a bad light".

Equally, he acknowledged that Mrs Dine was "not a satisfactory witness".

Ultimately, he decided that Mr Dine's children had not proven that the properties at the heart of the case were bought by his company.

He recognised that the judgement would be a "great disappointment" to Elliott and Louise and "not the outcome of the case that Graham would have wished for".

Nevertheless, he said, it "may be seen as a consequence of...Graham’s hopeless disorganisation when dealing with paperwork and his failure over many years to organise and document his business finances and transactions with greater rigour".

Unfortunate as the determination might be for Mr Dines' children and as unpleasant as it will no doubt have been for all involved, it is a far from unique set of circumstances.

Figures published by the Ministry of Justice last June revealed that the number of contentious probate cases reaching the courts in 2021 were 54 per cent higher than the previous year (

Not all will have involved men or women whose personal paperwork was in the same state of disarray as was apparently the case for Mr Dines.

Even so, whenever such an episode arises, it underlines the importance of clarity in estate planning.

I appreciate that discussing death and cash might still be uncomfortable - something of a taboo, even - for many people.

Yet the alternative - rancour and the potential for large legal bills if matters end up going to court - is, I would suggest, far less savoury and less likely to leave the deceased or their surviving relatives resting in peace.

To discuss any of the above further, please feel free to contact Heather:  |  07359 340156