We all know and love Walt Disney’s The Lion King, but for those that have been living under (pride) rock, the story goes as follows *spoiler alert. Young Simba will one day inherit Pride Lands from his father, King Mufasa. His jealous and wicked uncle Scar (Mufasa’s brother) plans to usurp Mufasa’s throne by luring both Mufasa and Simba into a wildebeest stampede. However only Mufasa is killed and Simba flees, made to believe that it was he who caused his father’s death. Scar takes to the throne…
If Walt Disney had set the story in modern day England and Wales, what would be the legal consequences of Scar’s actions? Early in the film, Mufasa tells his son:
Look, Simba. Everything the light touches is our kingdom.
A king’s time as ruler rises and falls like the sun. One day, Simba, the sun will set on my time here, and will rise with you as the new king.
And this will all be mine?
Rules of intestacy
In addition to passing over the throne, Mufasa owns several personal assets including Pride Rock, an art collection, jewellery, real estate holdings and investments.
Although it would have been sensible for Mufasa to execute a valid will, leaving everything to Simba, Mufasa feels at ease knowing that after he dies, Simba as his only surviving child, will inherit all his assets under the rules of intestacy (s.46 of the Administration of Estates Act 1925). For the avoidance of doubt, Mufasa and Simba’s mother, Serabi are not married. Under these rules, and without a valid will, neither Serabi nor Scar would inherit from Mufasa’s estate.
However, in the most tragic moment of the film, Mufasa and Simba get caught in a wildebeest stampede. Describing their deaths to the pride as a ‘great personal loss’, Scar assumes the throne. Under the rules of intestacy, if Mufasa dies with no living issue and no living parents, all his assets pass to Scar, as his only living sibling. Serabi is still not entitled to any part of Mufasa’s estate under the rules of intestacy.
Or so the pride were made to believe…
It is of course Scar who arranges for Mufasa and Simba to get killed, so he can inherit Mufasa’s assets and become King. He instigates the wildebeest stampede and lures Simba and Mufasa into it. Mufasa is almost safe at the top of the hillside when Scar appears from above, pushing him off. Scar tells Simba to run away and orders the hyenas to kill him, not knowing they fail to do so.
Not being implicated in either of Mufasa or Simba’s deaths is key for Scar to be able to inherit Mufasa’s assets. Section 1 of the Forfeiture Act 1982 provides that a person cannot benefit from their crime. This rule has been established to prevent convicted murderers from being able to inherit from their victims (both as a beneficiary of a will and by the rules of intestacy).
Scar’s plans are foiled however when Simba returns to the Pride Lands, having spent four years in the jungle with his good friends Timon and Pumbaa, and takes his rightful place as king.
What could Mufasa have done to protect his assets from his brother, Scar?
Mufasa could have executed a valid Will during his lifetime, that left everything to Simba. The Will could specify who should inherit his estate in the event that Simba dies without leaving behind his own issue. To ensure that Scar did not benefit from his estate, he could also have written a Letter of Wishes to lodge with his Will, explaining why he wished to disinherit Scar. Though a Letter of Wishes is not legally binding, it could be persuasive to challenge any legal claims made by Scar.
What claims could Scar have brought instead?
If Scar felt he had not been adequately provided for under Mufasa’s estate, instead of plotting to kill Mufasa and Simba, he could have made a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. He should have done this within six months from the Grant of Probate, of either his and Mufasa’s last remaining parent’s estate, or from Mufasa’s estate following his natural death, depending on which estate he wanted to claim from. To be successful in obtaining an award under the Act, Scar would need to prove he could demonstrate a financial need and had not been adequately provided for from their estate.
What is proprietary estoppel?
When bringing a claim under the Inheritance Act 1975, Scar may struggle to claim ownership of Pride Rock if Simba brings a claim for proprietary estoppel. Simba would need to prove that he was promised the land by his father, he relied on that promise, and has now suffered a detriment caused by a reasonable reliance on that promise. For example, he may have carried out work on the land for several years and turned down opportunities elsewhere on the basis that he would one day own Pride Rock.
Whilst The Lion King is not representative of many aspects of modern-day life in England and Wales, the above scenario does set out disputes commonly faced by people in the area in which our team specialises.