14 December 2023 by Selina Atim

Time constraints for challenging a Will

The Doctrine of Laches – What are the time constraints when challenging a Will at court?

When challenging the validity of a Will, in short, there is no formal time limit within which a claim can be issued at court.

This is unlike claims arising pursuant to the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975, whereby proceedings must be issued at court within six months of the date of the grant of probate.

While initially it may seem like the potential claimant has more time when deciding if they would like to proceed with a probate claim, the recent case of James v Scudamore [2023] EWHC 996 (Ch) helps demonstrate that in fact it is a good idea to act quickly, as the court can bar a probate claim if it considers that there has been an unreasonable delay.

James v Scudamore – Background Facts

The case concerned the affairs of the deceased Ivor Percy James (‘Ivor’).

Ivor executed a Will on 6 March 1998, providing a life interest in his matrimonial home to his second wife Christine and, upon her death, the property would pass absolutely to his two sons Martyn James (‘Martyn’) and Raymond James (‘Raymond’).

On 26 December 2002, Ivor executed a codicil which left his matrimonial home to Christine absolutely.

Ivor sadly passed away on 21 June 2010 and his Will and Codicil were proved by Christine on 28 July 2011.

Two years later, Martyn obtained advice from a solicitor as he believed the 2002 codicil was not validly executed. Nevertheless, it was not until many years later in 2020 that Martyn issued proceedings at court.

The Conclusion

The High Court dismissed Martyn’s claim as he had waited too long to issue it at court.

The equitable doctrine of laches provides that, if there is an unreasonable or undue delay in asserting a legal right, to the detriment of the opposing party, then laches will operate to prevent the claimant from proceeding with their claim.

The judge concluded that due to the lapse in time, key evidence which may have assisted the court in reaching a judgment was no longer available.  By the time Martyn had issued his claim, Christine and one of the witnesses to the codicil had already passed away and this was vital as their evidence would have been instrumental in determining Martyn’s claim.

Additionally, the executors had already obtained the grant of probate and the estate had been distributed which would make it harder to recover any assets if the Will was found to be invalid.

It is worth noting that, in this case, the judge found that the claim would have failed in any event, as Martyn’s assertions that the codicil had not been duly executed were based on a fabricated story.

This case acts as a reminder to act quickly if you are concerned about the validity of a Will.

If you would like further information on bringing or defending a Will challenge, please contact our Disputed Wills and Trusts team at Bolt Burdon.

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