Downton Abbey-esque inheritance saga: reality is more complex still

11 September, 2017


Most individuals are free to choose how to dispose of their estate, with a Will directing the distribution of their assets. Hereditary peerages (individuals whose title may be inherited) are different, passing in a prescribed way, often through the male line. Most English peerages (and sometimes the land that is associated with that peerage) pass to the eldest son and, should no son be born, the title will cross to a male relative.

This issue, popularised in a plot of ITV’s Downton Abbey, has been brought to fore again by the death of Robin Neville, the 10th Baron Braybrooke of Audley End House, Essex, in May 2017.

Lord Braybrooke left three daughters but no son. Amanda Murray, the eldest, manages the estate. On her father’s death the estate passed to a distant female relative, following a covenant (condition) created by the 7th Baron which stated if any future Baron had no son, then the estate’s ownership would revert to follow the 7th Baron’s line. The estate has, in effect, been held in Trust. As Robin Neville had no male heir, the Trust ended and the ownership reverted to the 7th Baron’s covenant. Lord Braybrooke’s title passed separately, to the Baron’s fourth-cousin once-removed, a male relative.

British laws governing hereditary peerages are complex. Royal succession laws were changed in 2013, ensuring the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s eldest child would be first in line to the throne, regardless of gender. Changing succession laws for all peerages would require close examination of individual titles (most peerages are created by individual legislation directly from the monarch).

For further information about Will disputes and disputes involving trust and estates, please click here to view our Guide to Will Trust and Estate Disputes.