Lesson learned from the challenge to Dr William Benz’s will
In this blog post, we discuss the lessons learned from the challenge to Dr William Benz’ Will, which was mounted by four of his six children after he left the bulk of his substantial estate to his second wife.
Dr. William Benz and his wife, Gwenneth, also a medical doctor, owned a medical practice at Bondi Junction, in Sydney, as well as a number of residential properties. The couple had six children who all attended private schools. All was going well with the family until Dr. Benz, then aged about 47, met Erlita Armstrong, 21, who was working as an assistant at her husband’s service station in Sydney. The couple began a secret relationship which lasted for 15 years, until Gwenneth discovered their affair.
Gwenneth kept her marriage, and the family, together, until she suffered a fall at the family home in 2010. She was moved to a nursing home and Dr. Benz and Erlita began living together. Gwenneth died in 2011. A little over a year later, Dr. Benz and Erlita married.
The Will & Estate
Dr. Benz died in 2019, aged 84. His estate was valued at over $20 million.
In his Will, he left Erlita the Benz family home in Sydney, the medical surgery, two other houses in Sydney, a number of cars, a valuable art collection and shares worth several million dollars. His six now adult children were left very little. Erlita, as executor of the estate, tried to ensure that they received nothing.
Significantly, Dr. Benz had named Erlia as the nominated death beneficiary of his superannuation fund. That was worth $11 million.
The Legal Challenge to the Will
Four of Dr. Benz’s children sued the estate, claiming that their father had not made proper provision for them in his Will - he gave no reason for leaving almost all of his estate to Erlita.
The case was heard in the New South Wales Supreme Court in Sydney from 18 to 22 October 2021, at considerable expense to all parties, but the legal costs came out of the estate.
The oldest child, John, settled out of court for about $200,000. The other three children were awarded between $900,000 and $1.9 million each. The amounts differed, depending on the needs of each of the children. Erlita, as Dr. Benz’s wife, kept the bulk of the estate.
Lessons Learned from the Case
It’s fairly common that a couple will leave their estate to their partner (either married or de facto), with the assets then going equally to the children upon the death of the last of the couple.
Usually, a court will not interfere with a binding death nomination in a superannuation fund, but under New South Wales law, the judge was able to do so, and dipped into the superannuation fund to award money to the four children who had sued the estate.
The moral of the story is that if you want to leave unequal amounts to your partner or children in your Will, it’s advisable to clearly explain in the Will why you are doing so.
For example, you may have given a child a substantial gift during your lifetime (such as shares, or a house), or your may have been estranged from a child and not have had contact for years.
If Dr. Benz had made proper provision for his children in his Will, while leaving Erlita, as his wife, the substantial part of his estate, a costly and, no doubt, traumatic court case could have been avoided.