Williams v Hensman

March 04, 2024
Micheal James

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In 1861, the English Court of Chancery heard the case of Williams v Hensman, a landmark decision in the realm of trusts law. The suit, brought by five beneficiaries against their trustee, centered on the nature of their co-ownership interest in a trust fund and the consequences of their actions for its distribution. This case established crucial principles governing the severance of joint tenancies, with lasting implications for co-ownership and succession.

Facts of the Case

A mother bequeathed money in trust for her eight children, stipulating that it be invested in stock to provide an annuity for one child, followed by distribution of the principal among the remaining children upon her death. Three of the children were minors at the time. The beneficiaries jointly authorized the trustee to invest the fund in a mortgage.

Issues of the Case

Two key legal issues arose:

  1. Joint Tenancy or Tenancy in Common: Did the will create a joint tenancy or tenancy in common for the children? In joint tenancy, shares pass automatically to surviving tenants, while in tenancy in common, each child inherits their specific share.
  2. Severance of Joint Tenancy: If a joint tenancy existed, did the children’s actions (joint authorization and individual dealings with the trust) sever it, altering their inheritance rights?

Arguments Presented

The beneficiaries argued that the will created a tenancy in common, citing the individual beneficiary designations and the absence of words explicitly indicating a joint tenancy. Conversely, the trustee contended that a joint tenancy had been established, emphasizing the investment authorization as a joint endeavor, which, under established principles, could not be undertaken by tenants in common.

Court’s Decision and Reasoning

The court held that the will created a joint tenancy, but importantly, found that the joint authorization to invest severed the tenancy, though only partially. While the authorization did not sever the interests of the five children from each other, it did sever their interests from the three minor children, thereby individualizing their shares and inheritance rights. This reasoning rested on the notion that any act demonstrating an intention to treat separate interests constitutes severance, regardless of awareness of legal consequences.

Impact and Analysis

Williams v Hensman established a foundational framework for understanding co-ownership, offering clear guidelines for interpreting joint tenancies and identifying acts constituting severance. The case clarified that mere consent to joint action can sever a joint tenancy, even if individuals are unaware of its legal implications. This principle continues to guide interpretations of co-ownership interests in trusts and land law. While some criticize the potential for inadvertent severance, the clarity it provides is generally commended.


Williams v Hensman remains a vital precedent in trusts law, shaping contemporary understandings of co-ownership and severance. Its emphasis on intention and demonstrable acts continues to inform legal interpretations and protect individual interests within shared holdings. The case remains a cornerstone for navigating the complexities of co-ownership, ensuring clarity and predictability in trust administration and inheritance rights.

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