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Tuesday 13th August 2013

Joan Edwards – a curious case of a generous bequest

Splitting a woman’s bequest between the coalition parties was an audacious reading of her will. In this article written by the FT, Richard Roberts’ opinion was sought on the interpretation.

The orginial article appeared in the Financial Times on the 15th August 2013 and was written by John McDermott. Richard Roberts as Chair of the Law Society Wills and Equity Committee was aked to comment on a number of national and regional radio and televison news programs.

Taking money from a dead woman is lousy politics. On Wednesday the UK’s Liberal Democrats and Conservatives said they would hand back the money the parties received from Joan Edwards, who died in Bristol in September last year aged 90, leaving £520,000 to “whichever government is in office at the date of my death”.

The Tories and Lib Dems should not have taken the money. Belatedly, therefore, this is the right decision. Edwards’ will makes no mention of political parties, stating that it is “for the government in their absolute discretion to use as they may think fit”. If she had wanted to donate to a party then a prudent solicitor would have advised her to do so directly, since such bequests are exempt from inheritance tax.

We do not know the full details of what happened between Edwards’ solicitors and the government. And of course we cannot confirm the former nurse’s precise intentions. “I have never seen a case as curious in 30 years of practice,” Richard Roberts, chairman of the Law Society’s wills and equity committee, told me on Wednesday morning.

The case is a reminder that a will is one of the most important documents we ever sign. The language should be unambiguous, allowing solicitors to execute the deceased’s instructions accurately and fully. Mr Roberts says that the wording of Edwards’ will suggests it was written in a professional manner. The problem came when someone – we don’t know who – interpreted the phrase “absolute discretion”.

Splitting the money 80-20 between the parties in the UK coalition government was an audacious and suspiciously precise reading of the will. Although there were no clear instructions – pay down the national debt, say, or build a hospital – there is a clear separation between political parties and the British government. In ambiguous cases the people involved can also seek the advice of a “construction summons”. The seeming failure to conduct due diligence is at best the sign of severe sloppiness.

Trust in political institutions is low and small symbolic stories such as this one only help erode it further. We should not lose sight, then, of the unusual selflessness of Edwards’ donation. Giving money to the state upon death is unsurprisingly uncommon. Most people think they’ve paid enough in taxes over their lifetimes.

I asked the UK Debt Management Office for data about how much is given annually to its Donations and Bequests Account for the purposes of paying down the national debt. In 2002, the DMO took over the functions of the Commissioners for the Reduction of the National Debt, an obscure part of government that can trace its origins back to the National Debt Reduction Act of 1786. There are other ways to bequeath money to central government but full data on these are unavailable.

It is tempting to read the biographical scraps of Edwards’ life – nurse, midwife and council house dweller for 80 years – and imagine that her donation says something about her relationship with the welfare state. That is best resisted.

Enough politics has already been played in this peculiar case of generosity and selflessness.

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