Court delays earl's pounds 1m inheritance

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The Independent Online
THE PROBLEM is one that will be understood by many parents. They want to be kind, they want to be generous, they want to make sure Janet or John has the best chance in life - but on the other hand they don't want to spoil them.

Yesterday, two noble parents went to extraordinary lengths to ensure their blue-blooded son does not end up the same way as many of his ilk.

At the High Court, lawyers for the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland secured the postponement of a massive inheritance for their son.

They argued that giving him "too much too young" would leave him vulnerable to "vices and pitfalls".

Edward Davidson QC, representing the duke, said that under the current terms of a family arrangement his 14-year-old son, Earl Percy, will, on his 18th birthday, receive a lump sum of pounds 1m and an annual income of pounds 250,000. The court agreed that the arrangement could be changed so that he will now receive the inheritance when he reaches 25.

"He could harm himself very severely if he has a fund of this size. The Marquess of Bristol inherited a large sum of money on his 21st birthday and never recovered from it," said Mr Davidson.

"He will still have a lifestyle most of us would envy but he needs suitable protection from all the risks, vices and pitfalls and dangers which afflict young men in these circumstances."

The Marquess of Bristol died last month from what his family revealed was "chronic drug abuse". But Mr Davidson could just as easily have looked elsewhere for supporting evidence.

The Marquess of Blandford, heir to the Duke of Marlborough, was once so addicted to cocaine that he was unable to sleep unless he had snorted a line or two.

"I had no self-esteem left," admitted the marquess, who beat his habit after attending a rehabilitation centre. "My behaviour was selfish. I lied and I cheated. I just kept pressing the self-destruct button."

Harold Brookes-Baker, publisher of Burke's Peerage, said these examples highlighted the worst in Britain's "best" families: "Before the First World War, the majority of British aristocrats were some of the best educated people in the world, speaking many languages.

"After the war, when the best of them were slaughtered on the battlefields, the majority [of the remainder] seemed to be interested in hunting, fishing and shooting.

"There are very few members today who speak five languages. The traditions of scholastic perfection and social responsibility used to go hand in hand. But remember we only hear about those young aristocrats who get into trouble. We don't read about those who are doing good things."

Such bad behaviour is nothing new. "History is littered with aristocrats who got into trouble with their lifestyles," said Negley Harte, senior lecturer in history at the University of London. "At the beginning of the 18th century they even introduced a law of strict settlement to stop heirs gambling away their inheritances. They used to complain that they all suffered from fast women and slow horses."

Professor David Cannadine of Columbia University, author of The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, added: "In the past it was mainly the aristocrats who had money and it was for them to decide whether to waste it or hang on to it. Nowadays, there are other sorts of people who have lots of money who face that problem."

The Duke and Duchess of Northumberland are adamant such problems will not face their son, currently studying at Eton.

Mark Herbert QC, representing the boy's mother, said the duchess agreed that "too much income to such a young man is a bad thing.

"He is a clever boy in the top third of his class and I have been told by his mother that he is ambitious to do well at school and beyond school - he plans to go to an Oxbridge university and then on to Harvard.

"He is hard working and wants to stay in the real world and make his way in it.

"This is not a case of a heavy-handed father being suspicious and making sure his son is kept in place."

The inheritance comes from a trust fund set up in 1918 by the seventh Duke of Northumberland on 3,000 acres and property in Albury, Surrey.

Mr Justice Pumfrey, sitting in the Chancery Division, added: "Some people might not want to give that magnitude of money to someone of any age."