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83-year-old jailed for failing to hand back inheritance

Contested Will Saga Ends in Prison Sentence

A retired window cleaner, who was left £280,000 in the will of a customer, was jailed for failing to hand back the money when ordered.

How was Albert Pearce, aged 83, sent to Pentonville Prison for six months because of an inheritance from a 98-year-old customer? The story begins as long ago as 1996, with elderly, childless Julie Spalding, when her nephew Cecil Bray gave up his part time job to look after her. In return, Mrs Spalding promised to make Mr Bray the sole beneficiary of her estate, and from then on, he was at her beck and call.

But nine years later, something went horribly wrong between aunt and nephew. According to Mr Bray, his aunt underwent a "series of personality changes" after suffering several falls. This culminated in Mrs Spalding ordering her nephew out of her house and refusing to have anything more to do with him. In the ensuing three years, Albert Pearce, then her window cleaner, became increasingly involved in her life, to the exclusion of family, friends and carers, so much so that she changed her Will, leaving everything to him instead of Mr Bray.

Will Overturned

When Mrs Spalding died in 2008, Cecil Bray contested his aunt’s Will, and the case took until 2014 to come to court.  Mr Bray, himself frail and in his eighties by this point, was brought to court from hospital in a wheelchair to give evidence.  He argued that his aunt had lacked the mental capacity to validly change her will and he presented circumstantial evidence that Albert Pearce had exerted “undue influence” over her, pressuring her into changing her Will in his favour.

The court didn't accept there was undue influence but did conclude that Mrs Spalding’s later Will was invalid due to her lack of mental capacity. The court ordered that her 2003 Will favouring Cecil Bray should take effect. Mr Pearce was ordered to hand back every penny he had received from Mrs Spalding’s estate.

Where Did the Money Go?

But Cecil Bray’s victory turned out to be a hollow one, because Albert Pearce maintained he had spent or lost all the money he’d received and was penniless.

There followed three years of fighting to recover the money. Mr Pearce was declared bankrupt and was closely interrogated by the Insolvency Service. He made a series of fantastical claims, including that he had gambled it all away and that he’d stashed £300,000 in cash in the boot of his car, which had shortly thereafter been repossessed.

But the Insolvency Service found him out. Their forensic investigations of his finances established that, though a series of transactions, he had spirited the money away to members of his family. Mr Pearce was hauled before the High Court, which judged that his failure to provide information about his financial affairs, his lies about what he had done with the inheritance and his attempts to conceal his assets amounted to “an extremely serious case of deliberate contempt of court". This is what prompted his imprisonment despite his advanced age.

Cold Comfort for Cecil Bray

Cecil Bray would be forgiven a moment of grim satisfaction at seeing his nemesis sent to prison. But sadly, the imprisonment will not have brought back the missing funds. It does appear that the money has been traced to members of Pearce’s family. However, recovering the money from those family members will involve yet more expensive court proceedings.

It is unusual that the money ever came into Pearce’s possession. The first thing Cecil Bray’s lawyers would have done in most circumstances, would have been to impose a “caveat”, preventing the estate from going through probate until the case was resolved. If probate had already been granted by the time Mr Bray consulted lawyers, an injunction could have been applied for, requiring the money to be set aside, out of either party’s reach, until the outcome of the case was known. It may be that it was too late for any of these actions to be taken. Or an injunction may have been applied for and been turned down.

The lesson to be learned from Mr Bray’s misfortune is clear. If you are ever unlucky enough to suspect you have been cheated out of an inheritance by an invalid Will, it is vital to consult lawyers as a matter of urgency, so that swift action can be taken to prevent your inheritance slipping away

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