May 14, 2021

Christopher Lee’s final act – The disappearing estate

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Films_Obit_CL_MultiBy Stuart Clark From Hull & Hull LLP

When Sir Christopher Lee died this past June 2015, he died leaving what is perhaps the greatest “baddie” resume of any actor in recent memory. From James Bond villain “Francisco Scaramanga” in The Man with the Golden Gun, to “Saruman” in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, and “Count Dooku” in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, if there was a bad guy in a film series it was more than likely played by Christopher Lee.

The Daily Mail recently reported about what they called the “riddle” of Christopher Lee’s estate, after probate documents which were filed in the United Kingdom indicated a net value for Mr. Lee’s estate of “nil”. How, the question followed, could an actor of such a high profile, who otherwise appeared to be living a “comfortable” lifestyle, die with no assets in his estate?

In reality the “riddle” of Mr. Lee’s estate is no mystery at all, as the article goes on to explain that the majority of Mr. Lee’s assets were located in the United States and as a result not subject to probate in the United Kingdom, and that he had structured his estate planning in such a way that the majority of his assets passed to his wife by right of survivorship upon his death. The only assets which were subject to probate in the United Kingdom was apparently £48,000.00 in cash. As Mr. Lee died with liabilities in the United Kingdom greater than this amount, the net effect was that a value of “nil” was indicated on the probate materials.

If Mr. Lee’s estate were to have been administered in Ontario, it is likely that a similar turn of events may have taken place. In Ontario, assets that pass by right of survivorship are said to pass “outside” of the estate, and as a result would not be subject to probate. In the event that a person dies domiciled outside of Ontario, but leaving assets in Ontario which require a Certificate of Appointment of Estate Trustee to be issued in Ontario to be administered, it is only the assets which are located in Ontario which would be subject to probate in Ontario. As a result, just because an individual dies with an estate value of “nil” being listed on the probate application, it does not necessarily mean that the individual died without a penny to their name.

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