The Stichill Baronetcy: Modern Science For Old Inheritance Laws

For most matters of inheritance, a Will or similar is vital when passing on property and money, and anything in between, as discussed in my previous post. Even ancestral disputes can often be resolved by the production of a Will or similar legal document concerning inheritance.

However, when it comes to titles and estates – sometimes a Will is not necessary, or insufficient, as a very unusual case determined recently showed.

The Baronetcy of Stichill (near Kelso, Roxburghshire) was formally granted in 1683 to Robert Pringle and the “male heirs from his body”. The 10th Baronet, former Royal Marines commander Sir Steuart Pringle, died in 2013 at 84, leaving a son, Simon Pringle, who became the 11th Baronet. Unlike a peerage, heirs to a baronetcy do not succeed to the title automatically; evidence must be provided proving the relationship between the deceased holder and the and the heir.

A descendant of the 8th Baronet, Sir Norman Pringle, has been conducting genealogical research into the Pringle clan – and made an interesting allegation. Murray Pringle, a retired accountant from Buckinghamshire, claimed from his research that there had been a “break in the line of paternity,” arising when Sir Norman Pringle died in 1919. He left three sons, Norman, Ronald (Murray’s father) and James. In1920, the widowed Lady Florence made the required formal statutory declaration stating that Norman was the eldest son of Sir Norman and was therefore  entitled to succeed to the title. This he did, passing the Baronetcy in turn on to the late Sir Steurt.

According to lawyers for Murray Pringle, the eighth Baronet was not the father of Sir Norman, the ninth baronet. As such, the son of Ronald Pringle was the rightful heir and successor – Mr Murray Pringle. Inevitably, lawyers for for Simon Pringle dismissed the claim – and also questioned the claim of the other side to use DNA evidence to prove their case.

Eventually, DNA evidence was allowed to be used. A DNA sample obtained from Sir Steurt in 2010 indicated that he was not part of the male Pringle family line. Armed with that evidence, Murray Pringle began to advance his own claim to the Baronetcy.

The rare cases of disputed claims such as the Pringle’s are now submitted to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The seven judge panel (all Justices on the Supreme Court) recently ruled, that, on the evidence before them, Murray Pringle should be 11th Baronet Stichill. It was the first time that DNA evidence has ever been used to resolve a dispute over a hereditary title.

In their verdict, the JCPC found that the DNA evidence demonstrated to “a high degree of probability” that Norman was not the son of the eighth Baronet. On that basis, it was concluded that Simon Pringle was not after all the “heir male” of the first Baronet. Murray Pringle was established to be the grandson of Sir Norman the 8th Baronet, and as such the rightful heir. Further, it was found that there were no legal grounds for excluding the DNA evidence.

The judges also expressed their sympathy for “the late Sir Steuart Pringle, a distinguished officer, who faced an unwelcome challenge in his autumnal years, and also Simon Robert Pringle, the heir presumptive, who had grown up in the belief that his father was rightfully the 10th Baronet and that he would in time succeed to the baronetcy”.

Significantly, the judges also realised just how far reaching the use of DNA testing could be for future inheritance disputes by accepting DNA evidence in the Pringle case; “in the past … the absence of scientific evidence meant that the presumption of legitimacy could rarely be rebutted and claims based on assertions that irregular procreations had occurred in the distant past were particularly difficult to establish … [By contrast, now DNA evidence can] reopen a family succession many generations into the past. Whether this is a good thing and whether legal measures are needed to protect property transactions in the past, the rights of the perceived beneficiary of a trust of property, and the long established expectations of a family, are questions for others to consider.”

The admittance of DNA testing ensures that the Pringle inheritance litigation will remain a leading case for inheritance law. Admittedly, though there are few cases where DNA might be used to conclusively prove an inheritance; more commonly, a disputed inheritance arises over the deceased’s Will. An incorrect, unwitnessed, will – or indeed no will – will readily give rise to inheritance disputes.

The best way to avoid that, and to successfully pass on wealth and property is to have a clear will. Drafted correctly and properly, and signed and filed, such a document is peace of mind. It is also important to keep any will updated as and when is necessary.  Without clear direction regarding how any property, land or money is to be passed on, or if any provisions are contrary to law, any property or wealth could very easily end up with another, unintended, recipient. Alternatively – property can be seized by the Crown if declared declared intestate.

Inheritance can be made easy with a proper Will. Some inheritance matters, though, are beyond the scope of the Law of Wills & Succession – such as the Pringle Baronetcy. For those cases – there is always DNA.