Estate distributed in 2001: missing items

A testatrix lent paintings to a museum. She died in 2001, leaving her estate to charities. When the museum contacted her solicitor in 2019 to ask if it could acquire the paintings, the solicitor told the museum about her death. The solicitor had not known about the paintings. Since then, the solicitor has not responded to e-mails. I am a Law professor who helps the museum sector (and points them towards obtaining further legal advice). My initial reaction is that, because the rest of the estate was distributed so long ago, that it is too late for the charities to claim the paintings. But I would be grateful for others’ views, which I will pass on to the museum.

Janet Ulph
University of Leicester

I don’t see how the passage of time would prevent the charities from claiming the paintings, or even agreeing to the sale of them to the museum.

I’d advise the museum to get a copy of the Will and contact the charities directly.

Fiona Dodd
Mayo Wynne Baxter

Hi Janet,

I’d suggest you have a Resulting Trust. It was never intended the museum owns the paintings, therefore on request they ought to be returned to the trustees of the estate.

The time period is irrelevant.

Richard Bishop

Could you please explain why you think section 22(1)(a) of the Limitation Act 1980 will not operate to bar the claims of the beneficiaries under the will, given that the estate was distributed in 2001?

Janet Ulph
University of Leicester

Hi Janet,

s.22 LA 1980 is for a legatee who has ‘rights’ over the estate at the time of death. i.e 12 years to make a claim on the estate from the date of death.

The paintings are held on an implied trust by operation of law, the property was transferred with no payment, therefore, the museum is implied to have held the property for benefit of others.

My view based on the facts above.

Richard Bishop

When the administration of the estate is complete, all that remains is held by the executors in trust for the residuary beneficiaries by operation of law. Presumably therefore section 22(a) Limitation Act 1980 does not bar a claim by the charities, because it is subject to section 21(1) of the Act, which provides there shall be no time limit for an action to recover trust property from a trustee.

Paul Davies
Clarke Willmott LLP


Thank you for all of these helpful comments! I will pass them on to the museum concerned. I should add that the museum had wanted to contact the charities but the solicitor who dealt with her estate has not replied to the museum’s e-mails (after an initial statement that the testatrix had died childless in 2001 and left her property to various charities). Armed with your advice, the museum will no doubt write to the solicitor again in order to obtain contact details for the charities.

Janet Ulph
University of Leicester

This is my understanding Paul

Simon Northcott

The application of limitation periods is one of those mysteries that we non-contentious lawyers are continually foxed by, so I ran this thread past a litigious
colleague, who suggested that any limitation period would have been restarted by the museum’s acknowledgement that the paintings belonged to the deceased.

Like Richard, I read section 22 as limiting a beneficiary’s right to claim against the PRs. This seems to follow from section 21, which is explicitly about “an
action by a beneficiary under a trust”.

I have to admit that my assumption had always been that a deceased asset’s vested automatically in their PRs on death and that this claim could be asserted at
any time, but, presumably, there is a relevant limitation period here too? If the PRs were not aware of the existence of an asset, as seems to be the case here, is there some rule akin to that where lay clients are not aware of a professional’s negligence
at the time, but still have a right to bring a claim 3 years after they become aware of the negligence?

Anthony Nixon
Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth