It is often difficult for a beneficiary to take that first step towards bringing a claim against an estate. This is particularly so, where there is a minor child involved. However, it is extremely important that any such action is taken promptly. This was highlighted recently in the case of Caitriona Cunniffe -v- Michael Cunniffe and Martina Whyte, where the judgment was delivered by Mr Justice Meenan on 13 May 2020.
The facts of the case are not unusual for the era. Caitriona Cunniffe, Michael Cunniffe and Martina Whyte were three of the four children of Patrick Joseph Cunniffe who died intestate (without having made a Will) on 30 September 1987. He was survived by his four children. Caitriona Cunniffe, his daughter, was 17 when he died.
Martina Whyte was elected by her siblings to administer the estate. It would appear that all of the siblings of the deceased agreed that their brother, Michael Cunniffe, would continue to run the farm as he had done since he left school at 14 years of age in the early 1980s. All the livestock and machinery were transferred to him for the ongoing operation of the farm.
The estate included land, livestock, cash, insurance policies, household goods, farm machinery and a car. Letters of Administration were granted on 16 November 1988 and Martina Whyte commenced the formal administration of the Estate after this point. It was agreed that to maximise the return of the assets, the division of the monies should take place as each asset matured. Payments were made to Caitriona Cunniffe in August 1988, January 1989, May 1989, and November 1995. It was further alleged that this agreement was reflected in a written family settlement which was signed by all the siblings. Under the family settlement which was signed in 1995, it was agreed that Caitriona Cunniffe, Martina Whyte and the other sibling, Padraic Cunniffe, would disclaim all their interest in their father’s estate so that Michael Cunniffe would be the sole remaining person entitled to inherit. In consideration of this, Michael Cunniffe agreed to pay his siblings £30,000 each.
Catriona Cunniffe initiated proceedings in May 2016. She maintained that it was agreed that her brother Michael would remain in possession of the farm without any claim being made by the other siblings. However, Catriona Cunniffe claimed that she was assured by both her brother and sister “that the family home house would always be there for her regardless of title, possession, or ownership and that [she] would be entitled to full access and possession of same as and when she opted to avail of same...”.
She sought a number of reliefs against her brother and sister, including declarations that the family home was her sole property and that legal ownership should be transferred into her sole name, together with damages for personal injuries and consequential loss. She also sought damages for negligent misstatement and/or misrepresentation.
Both defendants pleaded that her claim, if any, was statute barred and that the claim ought to be dismissed by reason of delay.
First Claim - Misrepresentation
The first claim made by Catriona Cunniffe was one of misrepresentation on the part of her siblings. She made the case that following representations concerning the family home, she had agreed not to contest the lands of the deceased being transferred to her brother Michael. She stated that she continued to live in the family home for extended periods until 2003, at which point her brother allegedly made the home uninhabitable (by disconnecting the water and removing the solid fuel cooker). It appears that her claim accrued on some date in 2003 or 2004. As section 11(2) of the Statute of Limitations Act 1957, requires such actions to be brought within six years, her claim was clearly brought too late and was statute barred given that proceedings were only commenced in May 2016.
Second Claim - Administrator
The second claim was against Martina Whyte as administrator of the estate. Section 45 of the Statute of Limitations 1957 (as amended) provides that no action in respect of any claim to the estate of a deceased person shall be brought after the expiration of six years from the date when the right to receive the share or interest accrued.
The six-year time limit commences from the date the property the subject of the claim comes into the hands of the personal representative. Therefore, this claim by Catriona Cunniffe was also statute barred as proceedings had only been commenced in May 2016. The latest possible date, on the facts of this case, for the distribution of funds was 2004 when certain investment policies were distributed by the personal representative.
Third Claim - Personal Injury
Catriona Cunniffe also made a claim for personal injuries. The general rule is that such claims must be brought within two years of the injury. The High Court was of the view that she was aware that matters were going wrong at the latest in 2003/04 and this, apparently, was the source of her upset and consequent personal injury. The proceedings were clearly issued well outside the time provided for the bringing of such a claim. Thus, this claim was also statute barred.
Some chink of light
In her written submissions, Catriona Cunniffe also sought to rely upon the provisions of section 71 of the Statute of Limitations 1957 which provides:
“Where, in the case of an action for which a period of limitation is fixed by this Act, either –
(a) the action is based on the fraud of the defendant or his agent or of any person through whom he claims or his agent, or
(b) the right of action is concealed by the fraud of any such person,
the period of limitation shall not begin to run until the plaintiff has discovered the fraud or could with reasonable diligence have discovered it...”
The High Court stated that if Catriona Cunniffe could bring herself within the provisions of section 71, this would afford a defence to the plea that her action is statute barred. This did not apply to the personal injury action, which was clearly statute barred. As a result, the High Court directed a hearing as to whether she was entitled to rely on the provisions of section 71.
This case is a reminder of the importance of acting in a timely fashion where an individual has a claim against an estate. Unless there is fraud involved, the Statute of Limitations is in place to prevent defendants having to deal with old and stale claims against them. Putting things on the long finger is counterproductive and timely professional advice should be sought at an early stage.
For further information on this issue or on any queries relating to Wills, Probate, Succession and Tax Planning, please contact Owen Burke, Associate Solicitor at firstname.lastname@example.org.Back to Full News
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About the Authors
Jackie is Head of the Property team at Hayes solicitors. She is a highly experienced adviser to clients in the banking, public and retail sectors on all aspects of the sale, purchase, leasing, development and financing of properties. She has extensive experience of advising landlords and tenants in insolvency situations and has advised in recent high profile examinerships.
Owen is an Associate Solicitor, Trust and Estate Practitioner and Chartered Tax Adviser in the Private Client team at Hayes Solicitors. He specialises in Wills, Probate, Succession and Tax Planning and Enduring Powers of Attorney. He is a full member of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP). He is also a member of the STEP Ireland committee and the Dublin Solicitors Bar Association Probate and Taxation Committee.