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Ambiguous Wills and personal liability — Dryden v Young & Others

AuthorsBeth Middleton

Will Gift stacks of coins

Many executors can find themselves in challenging positions when the drafting of a Will is ambiguous. This can lead them to face personal liability for any maladministration if the estate is wrongly distributed — which can be significant in the case of large estates. 

Here, Will and inheritance disputes specialist Beth Middleton explores a recent case concerning complex and ambiguous gifts.



The High Court was recently asked to consider the matter of Dryden v Young & Others, which involved the last Will of Marjorie Robin Thompson, who died on 9 April 2020. 

The Will — dated 26 May 2016 — provided that the residuary estate was to be divided into fifteen equal shares between various organisations, including charities. From those beneficiaries, questions arose as to the intended recipient of seven of the shares.



Various charities that had been listed within the Will were unregistered and incapable of being easily identified. Others had been superseded, liquidated or changed names. Added difficulty was highlighted in clause 13 of the Will, which barred any charity from benefitting from the gift if it had changed its name or merged before the estate was distributed. 

Without direction from the Court, the executor would be at risk of being personally liable for any maladministration of the estate — essentially, for failing to distribute it to the correct beneficiaries. With the estate estimated to be worth in the region of £1.5m, this had the potential to be a significant liability.


Construction and interpretation of the Will

A claim was therefore issued by the executor to ask the Court to determine the true construction of the gifts of residue within the Will. This involved considering whether the gifts failed — and if so, to whom the gifts could be paid to.

The general principles of construction were undisputed. These involved the determination of the testator’s intention using the words that were set out in the Will in light of any extrinsic evidence. Unfortunately, the notes contained within the Will file didn’t shed any further light as to who the intended beneficiaries were. Attempts to examine bank statements for donations were fruitless.

The Court therefore had to consider all other evidence with regard to the complex law regarding gifts to charitable trusts and corporate entities. If the gifts were found to have failed, the Court would need to determine whether the gift was to pass in accordance with the intestacy rules or whether the funds could be applied to an alternative, related charity (also known as the principle of Cy-Pres).



In respect of all seven gifts referred to above, the Court determined that they valid. Suitable beneficiaries were found, having regard to the principles of charitable law. The Court interpreted the wording of clause 13 to apply only to changes made after the execution of the Will.

The decision of the Court also indicates its reluctance to deviate from what it considers to be the testator’s wishes. In this case, it was clear that Mrs Thompson intended for her residuary estate to be divided between various charitable organisations rather than to her extended family — who would have had the potential to benefit under the rules of intestacy had the gifts failed.


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Whether you’re a charitable beneficiary seeking to protect a legacy under a Will or an executor requiring expert advice around the interpretation or construction of a Will, our Will and inheritance disputes team can help. 

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Beth Middleton

Beth is an Associate in our litigation team.

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Beth Middleton

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