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British Child's Inheritance of Italian Property Creates Legal Quandary

Where a British child inherits foreign property, tricky legal issues can arise. However, as one case showed, English judges are well able to deal with such difficulties by applying the overriding principle that the child's welfare is always paramount.

The case involved an 11-year-old boy whose father died without making a will. Under Italian law, he automatically inherited a 25 per cent share in an Italian holiday home owned by his parents. His mother, who held 75 per cent of the property, wished to sell it at a good price which would yield a capital sum of 55,000 euros for her son.

Standing in the way of that objective, however, were provisions of the Italian Civil Code that require heirs to formally accept an inheritance. Procedural steps had to be strictly followed due to the boy's age and jurisdictional issues also arose because he was ordinarily resident in England. With a view to overcoming those difficulties, the mother applied to the High Court for an order under the Children Act 1989 authorising her to accept her son's inheritance on his behalf.

Upholding her application, the Court found that its jurisdiction in matters concerning parental responsibility extended to granting her the authority sought. It was plainly conducive to the child's welfare for issues concerning his heirship in Italy to be resolved to his financial benefit.

The mother had fully and faithfully discharged her parental responsibility to her son and the relief she sought would bring him no disadvantage. The order would not render him liable for any debts and would enable him to inherit property to which he was entitled. The alternative would be to expose him to the obvious risks entailed in leaving his Italian heirship hanging. The Court noted that the mother would have to seek further judicial authority before the sale of the property could proceed.