Contentious Probate expert Guy Platon takes a look at a recent high court decision in which the Court considered the validity of two wills made within a month of each other shortly before the testator passed away.
The case of Rainey and Weller & 5 others  EWHC 2206 (ch) arose from the death of Mrs Weller, and had a very interesting background.
The issues were quite simple; were her two wills, made in February and March 2018 genuine or not?
As legal practitioners, we look at ‘lower court’ cases like this to see if there is anything that we can learn from them or that they illustrate.
If we can take anything from this particular case it is the importance and decisiveness of extraneous evidence, particularly witness evidence.
Mrs Weller (the deceased) had had 3 children and was widowed. She had inherited some wealth. She was close, or at least had a good relationship, with one of her nieces, Ann.
The deceased made arrangements to make a Will with a local firm of solicitors in February 2018, leaving her estate to Ann and also making her Executor.
The Deceased passed away in November 2018.
It then emerged that her son, Paul, claimed that she had made a further Will, in March 2018, and that this left her entire estate to 3 of her grandchildren. He did not know about the earlier will until after her death. This Will was effectively a ‘DIY’ Will and had been allegedly found in the loft of her house in December, a month after her death.
As it stood, this was her ‘final’ will and would be the one submitted for probate.
Before she had died, the Deceased had told Ann about a suitcase that was under her bed that she didn’t want her sons to know about. The suitcase turned out to be very significant.
Ann, and a few other family members, opened the suitcase after the death and in it were 5 sealed envelopes, each addressed to various grandchildren and with £1000 cash inside and also a copy of the February Will. This was the first time Ann realised she was to be the sole beneficiary of the estate.
Ann decided to challenge the March will on the basis that the signature was forged, and obtained a favourable report from a handwriting expert. She then issued proceedings against Paul, who had now applied for probate on the basis of the later will.
After the parties had exchanged their pleadings, it emerged that the February Will was not going to be challenged. As an aside, there did not appear to be any grounds to do so as the Will was professionally drafted, no issues of incapacity, undue influence or any other reason for suspicions for that matter.
Significantly, the deceased had also made a Lasting Power of Attorney at the same time as the Will which showed that (i) she placed her trust in Ann (who was named as her Attorney) and not Paul and (ii) her mental capacity would have been certified at this stage as well.
The March Will was then scrutinised by the Court. What was immediately obvious was that there was no evidence to explain why the Deceased had decided to make an entirely different will to the one she had made only 1 month earlier.
The suitcase, which no one knew about until after her death, was also hugely important and showed that the deceased (i) placed her trust in Ann and (ii) clearly believed her February Will to be her final Will.
The Court considered 13 lay or non-expert witnesses. Significantly, the Court decided that Paul’s evidence was ‘implausible and improbable’ and further that he was ‘an unreliable historian”
The expert evidence was centred on the Deceased’s signature on the Will, which of course Ann had alleged was faked. Very often evidence of this can be inconclusive and hotly disputed.
However, the Court was satisfied that there was ‘moderate to strong evidence’ that the deceased did not sign the Will.
It was no surprise to find out that the claim succeeded, and therefore the March Will was revoked, meaning that the February will was used to distribute the estate.
The Court wasn’t convinced by Paul, and the other Defendants, at all and he was unable to answer crucial questions that would dispel the suspicion that the March Will had been faked after his mother’s death and after he had found out that her February will left her estate to her niece. The knee jerk reaction is to believe that a mother is more likely to want to leave her estate to her grandchildren rather than a niece. However, this was more than explained away with the witness evidence.
The hearing took place over 3 days and tellingly Paul and the other Defendants were not legally represented. We can only guess at the reasons for this but it is hard to imagine a competent legal practitioner who wouldn’t have intervened and offered realistic advice to Paul as the costs and evidence mounted up against him.
The key takeaway is that witness evidence, both in written statements and oral testimony, can be crucial, even with an expert report in your favour.
If you are looking to create your will, it is imperative that this clearly details your intentions. If not then you could risk losing control of your estate and may be leaving your Will open to disputes and litigation. The best way to avoid this is to have Your Will professionally drafted and our team of experts can help you.
Furthermore, if you are in dispute over the validity of a Will, we can help. Guy specialises in disputes arising from inheritance and probate, including the interpretation of Wills.
He can be contacted directly on email@example.com, or by telephone at 01254 67 22 22. Alternatively you can talk to us via live chat or complete our online enquiry form and one of our experts will contact you.