Amendments to an existing will by the hand of an unwitnessed solicitor, brings with it grave concerns within the courts, and on this occasion, there was little to endorse the legitimate redirection of assets from the testatrix’s named charities and extended family members, to that of a sole executor assigned to promote fair and transparent dispositions.
Having herself become wealthy through the acquisition of property and funds resulting from deaths of those close to her, the now deceased testatrix turned to the professional (and perhaps personal) advice, of a solicitor whose father before him had served the family’s legal needs.
During the decade preceding her death, there were a significant number of alterations made to her existing will and codicil, primarily through repeated consultation with the now respondent solicitor.
At the outset of their working together, the respondent had become responsible for the management of the deceased’s estate, following the death of her brother a year previous.
It was around this time that several liaisons occurred; during which, the testatrix was claimed to have requested that the Bank of Westminster and the respondent were to act as joint executors, with the responsibility of issuing annuities to close relatives and local named charities.
It was also admitted that throughout the course of events, the deceased knew little or nothing of the extent of her estate, while it was well known to those familiar, that she was also of reasonably low intelligence and lacking any substantive business acumen or financial insight.
It was for this reason that the court was reluctant to endorse later alterations involving the removal of the bank and charitable gifts in lieu of the respondent gaining sole executorship for the estate, along with the power to determine all pecuniary legacies at his discretion.
There was also mention that the deceased had grown concerned that a lack of funds would prevent her from securing her younger sister’s annuity; and so, with little objection from the respondent, this bequest was also removed, despite him having sound knowledge as to the actual value of her estate, and abundance of funds to hand.
All of these (and other) inexplicable changes resulted in an estate worth £115,000; which in 1947, was no small sum when it was noted that the deceased had taken the initial decision to leave the residual estate to the respondent, while its value had since increased from less than £1000 to now over £100,000.
It was this questionable outcome that prompted legal action for the recovery of the deceased’s estate on grounds that the will was void, due to the unwitnessed interactions between the testatrix and the respondent, and the reliance upon his deposition as evidence.
However, as fraud was never properly alleged, the judge gave the necessary jury direction and the will was held to be valid and beyond reasonable doubt.
Taken to the Court of Appeal, the Court upheld the previous findings, before the case arriving at the House of Lords.
Here, emphasis was placed upon the seeming reluctance by the first judge to approach the case with sufficient suspicion, as was traditional in these circumstances.
It was also argued that there were numerous reasons for the House to question not the mental fragility of the deceased, but her vulnerability in maters of property, wealth and estate administration.
And so after careful examination of the facts, the House uniformly decided that both the will and codicil were to be held as invalid, and that a referral to the High Court of Justice (Probate Division) on those grounds would be made for the purposes of a resubmission, but with the absence of beneficial rights granted to the respondent, while reminding the parties that;
“It is not the law that in no circumstances can a solicitor or other person who has prepared a will for a testator take a benefit under it. But that fact creates a suspicion that must be removed by the person propounding the will.”