Wands at the ready: the battle for Gambon’s legacy

Sir Michael Gambon was a star of stage and screen, well-known for his role as Professor Albus Dumbledore in six Harry Potter films. However, Philippa Hart, his partner of over 20 years, with whom he shared two teenage sons, could be in a far from magical situation as recent reports reveal that she has been left nothing from his £1.5 million estate under the terms of his will.

Sir Michael passed away in September 2023 aged 82, with his wife, Lady Anne Gambon, and their 60-year-old son, Fergus at his bedside. While he was married to Lady Anne for 61 years, he also enjoyed a long-term relationship with Phillippa Hart, whom he met in 2000 and went on to have two children with. Having come to terms with her husband’s other relationship, Lady Anne continued to reside with Sir Michael at their marital home in Kent while he also regularly stayed with Philippa at a property in West London. At the time of his death, it's understood that Sir Michael had been splitting his time between the two women for around twenty years.

Reports have now emerged that Sir Michael’s unconventional living arrangements haven't been reflected in the terms of his will as the document, executed in 2016, directs that almost the entirety of his fortune should pass to Lady Anne, or Fergus, in the event that Sir Michael’s wife died before him.  In contrast, the late actor’s younger sons, 17-year-old Tom and 15-year-old William, shall each receive £10,000 and one of their father’s acting trophies while their mother, Philippa appears to have been left out of the will entirely. 

What's Philippa’s legal position?

Unlike other jurisdictions, the laws of England and Wales generally provide people with testamentary freedom, meaning they have the right to dispose of their assets upon their death as they see fit.  However, the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, (commonly referred to as the “1975 Act”), enables a defined class of people to make a claim against an estate if they haven't been reasonably provided for. 

The categories of people who are permitted to make such a claim under the 1975 Act are:

  • The spouse or civil partner of the deceased
  • The former spouse or civil partner of the deceased (as long as that person has not remarried/entered into a subsequent civil partnership)
  • A person who, for the whole period of two years prior to death, was living with the deceased as spouse or civil partner
  • A child of the deceased
  • A person who was treated as a child by the deceased
  • Any other person who was being maintained by the deceased prior to their death

It's not currently known whether Philippa will benefit from any arrangements made between her and Sir Michael during his lifetime or if she is in receipt of any assets that fall outside of his estate, such as jointly owned property. However, if she isn't set to receive anything from Sir Michael’s estate as his will suggests, she could seek to bring a claim under the 1975 Act on the basis that she, as his partner, has not been reasonably provided for by the terms of his will.

In order to be eligible to bring a claim, Philippa would need to demonstrate that, for the whole period of at least two years prior to Sir Michael’s death, they had been living in the same household as husband and wife. This wouldn't be without its challenges given that Sir Michael was known not to live at one address permanently but rather, he moved between Philippa’s house and the house he shared with Lady Anne. It would be a question for the court, therefore, to determine whether Philippa could be considered to have lived with Sir Michael ‘as husband and wife’ in circumstances where he split his time between two properties and was legally married to another woman for their entirety of their relationship.

Alternatively, Philippa could bring a claim on the basis that she was being maintained by Sir Michael prior to his death. This would require an in-depth review of their finances, but may prove to be an easier route for her.

If Philippa was deemed to qualify to bring a claim, the court would then consider whether to make an award for her reasonable provision. For spouses and civil partners, the court can make an award of any sum it thinks is "reasonable in all the circumstances of the case for a husband or wife to receive, whether or not that provision is required for his or her maintenance". However, for all other classes of applicants, including Philippa as his long-term girlfriend, the court would be limited to making awards from Sir Michael’s estate only for her reasonable maintenance. What's considered reasonable varies greatly depending on an individual’s particular circumstances.

Could Sir Michael’s children bring a claim against his estate?

Notwithstanding her position as an applicant, Philippa could also consider pursuing a claim under the 1975 Act on behalf of her sons, Tom and William, on the basis they were minors and would presumably be financially dependent on their father at the time of his death. Again, it's not known whether Tom and William have been provided for outside of Sir Michael’s will, but, bearing in mind the total estate’s value of £1.5 million, the court could be asked to determine whether the provision made for them is reasonable for their maintenance. If not, the court could intervene so as to award further provision from Sir Michael’s estate in a range of formats, such as a lump sum, periodic payments or the transfer/sale of a specific asset. 

Under the 1975 Act, a claim against the estate must be issued within 6 months of the grant of probate.  As Sir Michael’s grant was obtained in February 2024, we would expect any claim to be brought by the end of August 2024. After this period, a claim can only proceed with the court’s permission, which is in no way guaranteed. 

It's vital, therefore, if you're considering making or defending such a claim against an estate, you act quickly and seek the advice of a specialist lawyer who can properly assess your position. Our dedicated estate, trust & will disputes team are experienced wizards in this area who can act for applicants, beneficiaries or executors of contested estates. Please contact us to find out more about how we can help you.

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Every piece of content we create is correct on the date it’s published but please don’t rely on it as legal advice. If you’d like to speak to us about your own legal requirements, please contact one of our expert lawyers.

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