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15th April 2021

Court rules that a testator’s informal wishes did not create a secret trust of valuable jewellery

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In the case of Titcombe v Ison (2021), Ms Richards died without children and left her whole estate to her good friend, Mr Ison. Her assets included a valuable collection of jewellery which her niece, Mrs Titcombe, claimed was held on a secret trust for her. A secret trust can arise when property is left to someone in a Will on the understanding that they will hold it for the benefit of someone else.

Mrs Titcombe took Mr Ison to Court and claimed that he and Ms Richards had agreed that Mr Ison would give the entire jewellery collection to Mrs Titcombe after Ms Richards’ death. Mrs Titcombe argued that, although Ms Richards had not expressed these wishes in writing, the jewellery was nonetheless held on a secret trust for her as the sole beneficiary. Mr Ison acknowledged that some of the jewellery was intended to pass to Mrs Titcombe but claimed that she was not supposed to be the sole recipient.

Case law has established that secret trusts can be created either in writing or informally. The main point to consider is whether the testator could have intended for their informal wishes to be the subject of a legal sanction if not followed, or whether they were merely expressed as a moral or family obligation.

In this case, the High Court ruled that no secret trust was created due to the informal manner in which Ms Richards expressed her wishes. In addition, Mr Ison’s evidence suggested that she was unlikely to want Court involvement.

This case demonstrates the importance of formally documenting your wishes in writing. If you would like advice on how to legally establish a trust to give effect to your wishes either during your lifetime or on death, please contact Alexandra Francis or Hauke Harrack.