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Williams (Deceased)- Challenging the validity of a will based on knowledge and approval7th April 2021 Commercial Litigation
The High Court, on 16 March 2021, handed down judgement in the case of Williams (Deceased) Re, 2021 WL 00966226 (2021).
This is an interesting decision concerning the validity of a will, and challenging validity on the basis of want of knowledge and approval.
Challenges to the validity of a will:
In English law, freedom of testation allows anyone over the age of 18 to freely make a will. However one of the grounds upon which a will can be challenged is if the deceased lacked knowledge and approval of the terms of the will. For example, if they signed without understanding some, or all, of its contents. The key when looking at the validity of a will is whether the court is satisfied that the contents of the will do truly represent the testator’s testamentary intentions.
Background to this case: Facts
In this case, the deceased, John Williams, made a will in 1990 (the “1990 Will”) and then subsequently made a further will in 2014 (the “2014 Will”). The claimant, Timothy, who was one of the deceased’s sons, argued that the 2014 Will was not valid due to want of knowledge and approval, and therefore wanted the court to pronounce against the said 2014 Will, in favour of the original 1990 Will.
The key asset to be left in the deceased’s estate was a farm house (the “Farm House”). The 1990 Will provided that the Farm House was to be left equally between the Deceased’s four sons.
In 2014, the deceased went to the solicitors to change his will. The issue in question was how the Farm House was to be left. Through his two separate conversations with members of staff at the solicitors, the deceased’s instructions significantly differed in relation to the Farm House. On the one hand, he stated that one son was to inherit 50% with the other 50% being split four ways between all four sons; and on the other hand, the Farm House was to be given to one son, Richard, outright. This is where the main issue lay.
The 2014 will stated that Richard was to inherit the whole of the Farm House. The other sons argued that the deceased lacked knowledge and approval of the terms of the 2014 Will when signing the will, evidenced by the two conflicting conversation in relation to the Farm House.
The key question for the court to determine was whether the Deceased knew of and approved the terms of the 2014 Will.
In an interesting decision the judge found that knowledge and approval was only lacking in some parts of the 2014 Will and not all of it. It was held that the deceased lacked the relevant knowledge and approval in relation to the clause in the 2014 Will, regarding how the Farm House was to be left. However the rest of the 2014 Will was valid.
Therefore, the clause in relation to the whole of the Farm House being left to Richard, was removed, and the Farm House fell into residue. The Judge stated that the deceased did not appreciate when signing the will that the Farm House was not to form part of the residuary estate and would go entirely to Richard. Therefore the 2014 Will did not represent his testamentary intentions.
This case deals with a distinct matter of law, where knowledge and approval are lacking in respect of only part of a will.
This case arguably highlights the courts reluctance to strike out whole wills, unless there are exceptional circumstances to show invalidity. Instead, the court are able to strike out the parts of the will which are invalid, thus leaving the rest of the will as valid.
The court placed great emphasis on the drafting solicitor’s file notes, highlighting the importance by will writers of keeping contemporaneous file notes. If prudent procedures have been followed in preparing and executing the will, then this often makes it more difficult to challenge a will. For example, if the will is prepared on instructions and then explained by an independent and experienced solicitor, this often makes it difficult to challenge. It is often then even more difficult to challenge, if the testator appears to have full capacity, as was the case here, which therefore raises a strong presumption of validity. Despite the deceased being 88 when making the 2014 Will, he was said to be ‘fully aware of what he was doing.’