Simple Property Rights – What’s Yours Is Yours

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This might look like a case about wills and fairness to widows and all that sorta stuff. But it’s actually much, much, more basic and important than that. Whose property is it anyway? What, actually, does private property mean?

So, basic story, man is dying, marries his partner of many years. He’s got a fortune. So, who does that fortune belong to? Our basic settlement in this free and liberal society is that the fortune belongs to him. Sure, there’s that marriage contract which tells us that there’s got to be a division with the new wife. But we have a number of rules about how much she gets – and it would be the same in reverse, with a husband – for how much time of marriage, who contributed, was the fortune made during the marriage and all that.

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For example, a fortune inherited by one married after some few months of marriage would be differently divided than one built up jointly – and jointly means one taking care of the kids and the house as another makes it – over decades of marriage. These rules are still in flux but that’s the general idea.

OK, so, after all that, whose money is it? We come to something called reasonable expectations. A disabled child who has been supported all their life can reasonably expect to be provided for from an estate. Therefore, if a will doesn’t do so it can be challenged and changed so that it does.

Do note this is all in colloquial, vernacular, this is not legalese nor legal advice.

But, once reasonable expectations have been met, whose money is it? Well, the answer in a society that has the concept of private property is that it belongs to the person whose name is on the tin. The meaning of private property being that one can dispose of it as one wishes. If you can’t then it’s not private, is it?

You can indeed leave it all to the cat’s home. Or the favourite child. Or in trust with conditions. Which is what we have here:

The widow of a ‘genius’ black bin liner tycoon has lost a landmark court fight to gain total control of his £16million fortune, after a judge ruled her £20,000 a month income was ‘generous’. Michael Cowan, who died from a brain tumour aged 78 in April 2016, built up his wealth from humble beginnings – making his fortune by introducing the humble black bin-bag into British households as an everyday item – at one point selling 200 million a year. But In his final few months he married his lover of 25 years, Mary Jane Cowan, who became his second wife.

Mr Cowan, who was ‘devoted to’ Mary Jane, left her with hundreds of thousands of pounds in ready cash and also used his will to set up a structure of ‘generous’ trust funds, ‘designed to meet her every reasonable need for the rest of her life’. But his 77-year-old widow was not happy with the arrangement and this week brought a groundbreaking bid to persuade the High Court to grant her ‘outright control’ of her late husband’s millions. Her case was effectively a bid to establish a right for wives to have direct control over their husbands’ riches after death, the High Court heard.

But Mr Justice Mostyn ruled she cannot go beyond her husband’s will – which provided her with £435,000 in the first year after he died and now a regular monthly payout from the trust funds, amounting to around £240,000 a year (£20,000 a month). Mr Cowan set aside £1million to support his children, stepchildren and grandchildren, but made Mary Jane the ‘principle beneficiary’ of one of the funds for her lifetime. Her barrister, Penelope Reed QC, had argued that the tycoon did not make ‘reasonable provision’ for her from his estate, because she has been left ‘very little by way of assets in her own name’.

She had reasonable expectations of support from his estate. Those have been met. The rest of it is his to dispose of as he wishes.

There’s no way we can keep that idea of private property if this isn’t to be so. Sure, of course, we can abolish that idea of private property but the world tends not to work so well when we do. And it would be rather better to have the socialist revolution to do it rather than bring it around the back in a divorce case.