Estate Frozen To Give Abuse Victims Time To Claim Compensation

The estate of deceased teacher and clergyman Michael Studdert has been frozen, to give his assault victims the opportunity to put a claim against the £4.7million estate.

Mr Studdert died in 2018, leaving a Will in which he outlined specific legacies for individuals and churches. The residue estate was then set to be given to an educational trust he had created four decades earlier.

However, Mr Studdert was convicted of being found in possession of indecent images of children between 1998 and 2006. He was subsequently jailed, placed on the sex offenders’ register and defrocked.

The executors of Mr Studdert’s Will were worried that as a result of his convictions, his estate would be subject to compensation claims from victims of historic sexual assault.

These claimants could qualify as creditors of the estate, and as such would need to be paid first, before any beneficiaries. If the executors fail to fulfill these obligations, they themselves would be liable for any compensation claims.

This is where the case seemingly gets a little confusing.

In normal circumstances, executors/administrators would guard against any outstanding debts by making a retention, advertising for creditors under Section 27 of the Trustee Act 1925. This would insure against any claims on the estate, or obtaining security or an indemnity from the beneficiaires.

In Mr Studdert’s case, no one has alleged that he has assaulted them. During his court case, no evidence was discovered to prove that he committed any sexual offences.

So, in regards to any potential victims coming forward to claim compensation, the best course of action to take is for the executors to apply to the court for directions in dealing with unascertained creditors.

The England and Wales High Court (EWHC), provided them with guidance.

Last January, Chief Master Marsh, (Re Studdert, 2020 EWHC 1869 Ch) told the personal representatives of the estate to distribute the small legacies – some of these were left to suspected victims.

At the same time, these legatees were told about the EWHC’s concerns, and the UK police and the Church of England schools where Studdert had worked were invited to investigate possible historic assaults.

This exercise did not produce any claimants, but it did produce evidence suggesting that Studdert might have committed offences against children while outside the UK, specifically in Denmark, Italy and Poland.

In a further hearing held in April, Marsh ordered the executors to create and maintain a dedicated website that provided details of Studdert’s career, in English, Danish, Italian and Polish, explaining how claimants could contact the executors’ solicitors. Similar information was to be published on Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia.

In the meantime, Marsh ordered that the remaining estate was not to be distributed until further notice, although he also noted that the distribution cannot be indefinitely barred.

Regarding the case, Chief Master Marsh said:

“It is of course possible that no victims will come forward.

“However, there needs to be a reasonable opportunity for claims to be made and a bar on distribution altogether is proportionate for the time being. It remains to be seen how long that bar should remain in place. It is always ope to the defendants to apply for the bar on distribution to be lifted.”

He also mentioned that a compensation scheme should be considered if one was needed.

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