Family relationships are sadly often built on shifting sand, and it is certainly true that a will can do no more than provide a snapshot of the state of relationships on the day it is signed. However, as a High Court case recently reviewed by Charlotte Ledson showed, that does not take away from the right of those of sound mind to bequeath their assets to whomsoever they wish.
The case concerned a mother of two daughters who was being looked after in a care home when she died, aged 78. By her final will, executed about five weeks before her death, she left all of her personal effects to one daughter (daughter A). The rest of her estate – including her principal asset, her home – was bequeathed in equal shares to daughter A and her other daughter (daughter B).
Daughter B challenged the validity of the will, asserting that her mother lacked the mental capacity required to make it. She also contended that daughter A exerted undue influence over their frail and vulnerable mother. She argued that an earlier will, of which she was the principal beneficiary, was her mother’s last true will.
Ruling on the matter, the Court acknowledged that daughter A had for some years been estranged from her mother. They had, however, been reconciled prior to the latter’s death. The mother’s relationship with daughter B had also come under strain because she disapproved of daughter B’s then partner. The shifting family relationships were reflected in a series of four wills that she made in the final 10 years of her life.
Rejecting daughter B’s claim, the Court was not satisfied that her mother lacked the ability to make rational decisions when she executed her final will. Although old and vulnerable, she knew her own mind and was able to form her own opinions and assert her own free will. Claims that daughter A put her under pressure to change her will and poisoned her mind against daughter B were rejected. She knew and understood the contents of her final will, which was admitted to probate.
A professionally drafted, up-to-date will can help to prevent contentious situations like this from arising.