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It has been reported that Kirk Douglas has left most of his estimated $60-$80 million fortune to charity. His estate will fund the work of the Douglas Foundation, which aims to help “those who cannot help themselves”.

Reports also suggest that Kirk Douglas’ famous son, Michael Douglas, will receive nothing from his estate. It is not surprising that Kirk Douglas left his estate to the Douglas Foundation, because he and his wife, Anne, founded it in 1964.

The Foundation helps to fund medical care and research and it supports children and local communities. For example, it has:

  • provided $2.3 million to the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles;
  • given grants to improve playgrounds and recreational facilities; and
  • created a $5 million scholarship for students attending St Lawrence University.

Leaving an entire estate to charity is not unusual. For example, in the UK, Dame Anita Roddick left her £51 million fortune to a charitable foundation prior to her death in 2007. Her husband, Gordon and their daughters supported this decision. However, Gordon Roddick had benefited from the sale of the Body Shop to L’Oréal in 2006 (a deal worth in excess of £600 million) and their daughter, Samantha, founded a famous lingerie store. It is therefore unlikely that they would have either been financially dependent upon Dame Roddick or required funds from her estate.

A challenge to Kirk Douglas’ will may also be unlikely, given that he had supported the Douglas Foundation for over 50 years and Michael Douglas’ fortune is estimated to be worth in excess of £300 million.

However, not every relative who is left out of a will (or receives less than they were expecting from an estate) may be as willing or able to accept this.

If a relative is disappointed by their inheritance, it could result in a will being challenged or a claim being brought against an estate.

Ilott v Mitson

One example of charitable legacies prompting a lengthy legal dispute is the case of Illott v Mitson.

In that case, Melita Jackson left her estate to several charities, whilst disinheriting her estranged daughter, Heather Ilott. Mrs Illot was married, had children and was also dependent upon state benefits.

The Illott case and several appeals were well publicised in the press (so the various court decisions will not be repeated again here). However, when you consider that the case took around 10 years to resolve, it highlights the importance of remembering that not everyone may be willing to accept being disinherited or a relative’s estate being left to charity.

In England & Wales, certain relatives or financial dependants can bring a claim against an estate for ‘reasonable financial provision’. Mrs Illot’s claim was made under the Inheritance Provision for Family & Dependants Act 1975.

Such claims can be brought by certain relatives or financial dependants. They can delay the administration of an estate, incur costs and also change how an estate will eventually be distributed.

How do I avoid claims against my estate?

In England & Wales, you can leave your estate to whoever you like. However, there are also risks that someone could either query the validity of your will or bring a claim against your estate. It is not possible to eliminate these risks, but you might be able to reduce them by considering the following:

  1. Obtain specialist advice
    Notify the solicitor making your will about any either any potential family disputes or if you wish to exclude a relative or financial dependant from your will. They will be able to advise you about the potential risks involved and also your options.
  2. Communication
    If possible, discuss your wishes and will with family members and financial dependants during your lifetime, so that they can understand the reasons behind why you have made your will in a particular way. It is also useful if you tell any charities whom you intend to benefit that they will receive a legacy from your estate. If you don’t want to discuss your will, you could prepare a document known as a memorandum of wishes, which will outline the reasons behind the legacies in your will.
  3. Consider your health
    If you have any health problems which might impact your ability to make a valid will e.g. dementia, stroke or brain injury, it is important to mention this to the person drafting your will. You can find information on Testamentary Capacity here.
  4. Make it your own
    It is vital that the will reflects your wishes and not those of others. If you are pressurised into making a will or it does not reflect what you want, it could be invalid.

Our disputed wills and estates solicitors can advise you about claims involving wills and estates. If you would like further information, please contact 01202 786161 or email