In the recent decision of Knipe v British Racing Drivers’ Motor Sports Charity (full case reference: [2020] EWHC 3295 (Ch)) the High Court was asked to make declarations in relation to the proper construction of clauses in a will that left legacies to two charitable organisations that did not exist. The Court’s approach to interpretation provides a valuable insight into the basis upon which additional evidence can be taken into account in certain circumstances and how such ambiguous charitable legacies may be construed.

The will made reference to firstly the "British Racing Drivers' Club Benevolent Fund” and secondly the “Cancer Research Fund”. The claimant, the executor of the will and trustee of the estate, was unable to proceed with the administration of the estate as a result of the issue with the ineffective charitable names and so bought a claim under CPR Part 8. He sought relief under CPR rule 6.24 for declarations of the proper construction of both clauses.

The Court held that the first clause was to be construed in such a way that the words in the will should be read in the context in which the deceased used them. The Court found that the legacy was most likely intended for the British Racing Drivers’ Motor Sport Charity, a valid charitable organisation. The deceased had a long-standing affiliation with the organisation, having been a professional driver in his lifetime and the Court deemed it unlikely that he had any other institution in his mind when drafting his will. In relation to the second clause, which referenced the Cancer Research Fund, the Court took a slightly different approach. The claimant submitted that the clause constituted a gift for a charitable purpose and the Court, upon taking into account extrinsic evidence, agreed. As the meaning of the words “Cancer Research Fund” is ambiguous, evidence was allowed to be admitted to assist the Court with its interpretation. The Charity Commission website showed that four subsidiary charities with names affiliated with “Cancer Research Fund” existed at the time the deceased drafted his will but had since ceased to exist. Subsequently it was determined that the legacy was to be applied for the general charitable purpose of cancer research as it was considered unlikely that the deceased had a particular charity in mind at the time of making his will.  

It appears that the court is likely to construe future legacies to mis-described charities in such a way as to ensure the deceased’s wishes are complied with as accurately as possible.  However, will drafters should pay careful attention to charitable legacies to ensure that they are worded to cater for the amalgamation and/ or closure of the intended charity and the specific charity registration number should be included if possible to avoid any doubt. The inclusion of a substitute charity or caveat stipulating that the legacy is to be used for general charitable purposes can help to ensure that the administration of the estate can proceed smoothly without any need for court involvement. Of course, if a testator has drafted their will themselves the issue of mis-described charities may well be unavoidable and their relationship, if any, to certain charities may well need to be considered.