1 March 2024 by Grace Gannon

Challenging the validity of a Will on grounds of undue influence

Channel 5’s TV drama ‘The Inheritance’ (2023) centres around three grieving siblings. After their father’s unexpected death, they discover they have been written out of his Will in favour of his new wife, the children’s stepmother, who receives everything!

In situations like the above, where beneficiaries have been written out of a Will completely, there may be concerns over the validity of the Will.  The same may be true where the provisions of a new Will are drastically different to a previous Will with no reasonable explanation from the testator. If a Will is invalid, it can be set aside.

A potential ground to challenge the validity of a Will is on the basis that the testator was unduly influenced to make it, so that it does not reflect their true wishes.

Undue influence could occur through overt acts of improper pressure or coercion, such as unlawful threats. The courts have also acknowledged that undue influence can occur where there is a relationship between two parties in which one person has a measure of influence over the other person and, in this instance, there need not be any specific acts of coercion at all.

Last week, the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment in the case of Rea v Rea [2024] after many years of contention regarding the validity of Anna Rea’s Will. After being originally set aside on the grounds of undue influence at the High Court, the Will was then restored when the Court of Appeal held it to be valid.

Rea v Rea [2024]

Anna Rea passed away in 2016, having made her final Will in 2015. In this Will she left the main asset in her estate, her property, to her daughter Rita, whilst her three other sons were left a quarter of the residuary estate each.

The sons contested the validity of the 2015 Will on grounds of undue influence. They claimed that Anna had lacked the mental capacity to change the Will and was manipulated by Rita into doing so. They sought to set aside the 2015 Will and asserted that Anna’s estate should be distributed pursuant to the terms of her previous Will made in 1986, the terms of which were more favourable to the sons.

At the High Court, the Judge ruled in the sons’ favour after being unsatisfied by Rita’s testimony that it was Anna’s own wish to change her Will. Crucially, Rita had no legal representation at court.

The case was then heard by the Court of Appeal (CoA), who disagreed with the previous judgement, ruling that it was Anna’s intention to change the Will herself. The CoA took a holistic approach when considering the evidence. Although Anna was vulnerable and dependent on Rita towards the end of her life, and despite Rita having an assertive personality and a potential motive for the new Will to be drafted in her favour, it was found that undue influence by Rita was not the most likely reason for Anna to change her Will.

Witness evidence was heard from Anna’s GP and her solicitor which confirmed that Anna had capacity and that she had made the decision independently from her daughter.

Finally, the CoA considered the level of care that Rita provided her mother during the last 6 years of her life, in contrast with the sons, who seemingly neglected Anna’s care needs. This aided the CoA’s judgment that Anna had made the informed decision to change her Will of her own accord.

This case is an example of just how difficult Will challenges can be to prove, particularly where there are allegations of undue influence. Situations and relationships can change over time and, to be successful, the court will need to be satisfied on the evidence that the Will does not reflect the testator’s true intentions at the time the Will was made.

If you believe that a loved one was coerced into making a Will, or if somebody is challenging a Will you believe to be valid, our Disputed Wills and Trusts team has the expertise to advise you at any stage of the dispute.

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