Reeves v Drew & Ors - The £100 million Will challenge.

17th February 2022 Will Disputes

‘‘It is trite that in this country testators have complete testamentary freedom and they can do as they please. They can act out of pure spite, irrationally, nastily and capriciously, and they do not need to justify their dispositions by reference to any notions of fairness, reasonableness or morality. That means that those seeking to uphold a will do not need to prove that the dispositions can be explained or justified as fair, reasonable or coherent’’ (The Honourable Mr Justice Michael Green, 2022).

In principle, those making a Will have complete freedom to do as they wish with their estates. What is open to scrutiny however is whether the testator was able to exercise his own free will in making the will and whether the same truly reflects his testamentary wishes.

Background

On 31 January 2022, following a 3-week trial and the hearing of evidence from over fifty witnesses, judgment was handed down by The Honourable Mr Justice Michael Green in the case of Reeves v Drew & Ors [2022] EWHC 159 (Ch), one of the most valuable probate claims that has ever been determined in this jurisdiction. 

Kevin Reeves’ (‘‘the Deceased’’) rags to riches story is quite incredible. Having been given up by his biological mother as an orphan to the local convent, the Deceased was fostered by a family with Irish traveller origins. At age 12, the Deceased left school and as a result, he was illiterate - he could not read or write. However, he demonstrated tremendous business acumen; trading in property, cars, shares as well as currency. By the time the Deceased passed in 2019, his empire was worth approximately £100 million.

The Deceased was survived by his four children; Louise, Bill, estranged son Mark and their half-sister Lisa Murray – who was unaware that the Deceased was her father until she reached her 20s.

The Wills

The terms of the Deceased’s 2012 will stated that 80% of his estate was to be distributed in 3 equal shares to Louise, Bill and Lisa. The remaining 20% of the Deceased’s estate was bequeathed in equal shares to Ryan and Ria – the children of the Deceased’s estranged son Mark.

In 2014 however, the Deceased executed a new will. The 2014 will’s terms meant that Louise would now receive 80% of her father’s Estate. The remaining 20% was left to Lisa with the exception of approximately £200,000.00 of chattels bequeathed to Bill. Ryan and Ria were left out of this new will completely, despite the Deceased being ‘very fond’ of them.

With the exception of Louise, the remaining beneficiaries were unaware of the existence of the 2014 will and its terms until it was read following the Deceased’s funeral.

The Claim

In November 2021, Louise’s claim reached trial in the High Court to uphold the terms of the 2014 Will, whilst Bill and Ryan brought a challenge to its validity. There were two issues that therefore required the Judge’s determination:

  1. Whether the deceased knew and approved the contents of the 2014 will; and
  2. Whether the deceased’s execution of the 2014 will was the result of the exercise by the Louise of undue influence.

Undue Influence

The Judge stopped short of finding that Louise had unduly influenced the Deceased to draft the new 2014 Will. However, did go on to state that:

‘‘I believe that the Claimant is a risk taker and she can be manipulative. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it… I believe that she was prepared to take the risk, because the prize was so great.’’

Want of knowledge and approval

On the issue of whether the deceased knew and approved of the contents of the 2014 will however, the Judge’s determination was not as kind to Louise. 

Louise had to prove that the Deceased knew and approved of the contents of the 2014 will at the time of its execution. Usually, this burden is discharged relatively easily, as if a testator has capacity and has properly executed a will, there is a presumption that they had knowledge and approval of the contents. It should be noted that the Defendants did not challenge the due execution and testamentary capacity of the Deceased in this matter. However, this presumption can be rebutted where there is evidence which makes the circumstances surrounding the execution of the will suspicious.

The Deceased’s literacy was at the forefront of the Court’s suspicions, with the Judge finding that

‘‘There is no evidence that the deceased did actually read the 2014 will by himself…The Claimant would have known that the deceased would not have been able to read the 2014 will by himself... I think she was relying on his illiteracy… to make it very unlikely that he would try to read the draft 2014 will himself.’’

The dramatic change to the testamentary intentions of the Deceased also aroused the Court’s suspicions, with the Claimant unable to prove why she took the lion’s share of the new will whilst beneficiaries from the earlier 2012 will were left out completely – without apparent good reason.

For the reasons set out above, the Judge was not satisfied that the Deceased knew and approved of the 2014 will – and thus pronounced against its force and validity.

Outcome

Following judgment, the aforementioned 2012 will took effect as the Deceased’s most recent valid testamentary document, and thus the estate was distributed according to its terms. Accordingly, Bill is now set to inherit £27 million from his father’s state, a stark contrast to the £200,000.00 that he was due to receive under the terms of the invalid 2014 will.

Our expert Contentious Wills and Probate team at JMW Solicitors will be able to investigate the merits of any potential Will challenge claim or defence and provide advice as to the merits of any challenge. To speak with a member of the specialist team in relation to this or any other matter, please call JMW on 0345 241 5305. Alternatively, you can fill in our online enquiry form and we will get back to you at the earliest opportunity.​​​​​

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Jac Evans is a Trainee Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Trainee Solicitors department

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