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Dali’s exhumation marks new chapter in ongoing inheritance dispute

Spanish legal challenge shows the lengths some will go to for inheritance claims, says lawyer

10 August 2017

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The exhumation of enigmatic artist Salvador Dali highlights the lengths some will go to when attempting to establish an inheritance claim, a factor that should be considered before engaging in litigation.

In June, a Madrid judge ordered the exhumation of the Spanish artist to determine whether 61-year-old fortune-teller Pilar Abel is Dali’s daughter and is therefore able to be recognised as his legal heir.

If confirmed as his child, Abel would be entitled to 25 per cent of the surrealist’s estate, which, upon his death at age 84, Dali bestowed to the Spanish state.

The exhumation marks a ten-year legal battle by Abel against the Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation and the Spanish state to establish a claim to the Dali name.

Paula Myers, national head of the will, trust, and estate disputes team at Irwin Mitchell, said that although the exhumation of a body to establish a claim is unusual, long legal claims are far from unheard of.

“While most cases are resolved quickly and at reasonable cost, it is impossible to predict the behaviour of an opponent and therefore some litigants find themselves engaged in a dispute for the long-haul.

“If the case is contentious enough or if it involves a unique point of law, it can pass through several courts and take years to pass down a final judgment.

“The difficulty for Ms Abel is that even if she is proven to be related to Dali, she is likely to have to embark on a further dispute with the foundation and the Spanish state, to which he left his works.”

Although the Dali case relates to Spanish law, Myers says UK lawyers are seeing more and more inheritance claims go the distance as they increase in complexity.

According to official figures from the Royal Courts of Justice, between January and December 2016 there was a large increase in claims issued under the Inheritance Act 1975, rising to 158 claims from 116 in the previous year.

There have also been developments in case law concerning inheritance claims, such as the recent decision by His Honour Judge Saffman, in Leeds County Court, to allow the estranged daughter of the deceased Stanley Nahajec to receive £30,000 from her father’s £240,000 estate.

Stanley Nahajec, who died in 2015, had written a letter explicitly disinheriting his three children and left the whole of his estate to a friend, Stephen Fowle.

Elena Nahajec’s claim succeeded in part because of her desire to train as a veterinary nurse. However, Fowle has already spent nearly all of the estate, and has had to borrow money to settle a similar claim made by one of Elena’s siblings.

Nahajec was the first case to be heard by the courts since the Supreme Court’s decision in Ilott v The Blue Cross from March this year.

“After the Ilott case, it was thought that estranged adult child claims should be treated with real caution and that estrangement could be fatal to claims or severely reduce the value of an award,” said Julia Burns, an associate at Irwin Mitchell.

“However, the judge here commented that the deceased was stubborn, intransigent, and insensitive and that the estrangement was not for want of trying on the part of the claimant who had been rebuffed.

“The award was 11.3 per cent of the estate which is very similar to that in the Ilott case (within 1 per cent). There was specific mention of her wanting to do a veterinary course so this is an example of something that falls under the definition of ‘maintenance’ post Ilott.

“This means that estranged child claims are not dead in the water but suggests that any claimants will need to show a track record of reconciliation attempts in order for the judges to consider their views.”

Image credit: Salvador Dali © Allan Warren/Wikimedia

John van der Luit-Drummond, deputy editor

john.vanderluit@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @JvdLD

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