High Court Rules on Appointment of Independent Administrator in King v. King Estate Dispute

Citation: [2023] EWHC 2822 (Fam)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the matter of King v King, the High Court of Justice tackled an appeal under the Family Division’s non-contentious probate jurisdiction. The case, which revolved around the selection of an appropriate administrator for the intestate estate of the deceased, Eric Sidney King, illustrates the application of specific legal principles governing the exercise of judicial discretion in the appointment of estate administrators and introduces procedural issues regarding non-contentious probate disputes.

Key Facts

Eric Sidney King passed away intestate, leaving behind two sons, Philip King and Stephen King, who contested the right to obtain letters of administration for the estate. By order of the District Probate Registrar, Stephen was initially granted the administration; however, Philip appealed against this decision. The family tree of the deceased presented further complexity, with potential claims from other alleged children and grandchildren of the deceased.

The court scrutinized numerous legal principles, including those outlined in the Non-Contentious Probate Rules 1987 (NCPR 1987), Senior Courts Act 1981 (SCA 1981), and the Rules of the Supreme Court 1965 (RSC 1965). Key among the principles considered were:

  • Priority for a Grant of Administration in Intestacy: The order of priority under NCPR 1987 Rule 22(1) designates the surviving spouse, children of the deceased, and issue of any deceased child who died before the deceased as those entitled to a grant of administration.

  • Court’s Discretion Among Equally Entitled Applicants: If multiple individuals of the same priority seek a grant, the court retains discretion in whom to appoint, with considerations including potential conflicts of interest, dependability, and the stance of the majority of the beneficiaries.

  • Appointing an Independent Administrator: Pursuant to SCA 1981 s.116, the court may appoint a person other than those entitled under probate rules if special circumstances are present, making it necessary or expedient.

  • Appeals Procedure: The RSC 1965 continues to govern appeals in non-contentious probate proceedings. Such appeals are by way of rehearing with the judge entitled to take the decision afresh.

Outcomes

After evaluating the evidence and allegations of misconduct and unsuitability against Stephen, the presiding judge, Deputy High Court Judge David Rees KC, concluded that both Philip and Stephen were unsuitable to act as administrators of the estate. He determined that special circumstances called for the appointment of an independent administrator pursuant to SCA 1981 s.116, a decision differing from the lower court which did not have the benefit of oral evidence.

Mr. Adam Draper of Rothley Law Ltd. was identified as the appropriate candidate to act as the independent administrator. The judge set aside the previous order and revoked Stephen’s grant of letters of administration, ordering the estate’s transfer to the newly appointed administrator.

Conclusion

The King v King case accentuates the High Court’s willingness to exercise its discretion robustly to ensure that an estate is administered in the best interests of all beneficiaries, particularly when faced with intra-family disputes and potential conflicts of interest. The case also highlights procedural aspects, including the availability of a rehearing appeal in the Family Division for non-contentious probate matters. Legal professionals should be mindful of the court’s priorities and guiding considerations in similar disputes over estate administration.

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