Persuasion not considered as undue influence in Will dispute

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Two of the six grounds on which a challenge to a Will can be made – lack of knowledge and approval and undue influence – featured in the recent case of Coles v Reynolds & Anor [2020] EWHC 2151 (Ch).

A dispute arose between two sisters over their mother’s last Will, made in May 2012, which named one of them (the Defendant) as sole beneficiary and executor. This document replaced a previous Will in her estate was to be split equally between her two daughters.

The excluded daughter, the Claimant, bought a claim on the following grounds:

  • The Defendant had unduly influenced their mother into making the disputed Will. Their mother did not have knowledge of, nor approved, its contents. Therefore, an order should be made revoking the Grant of Probate made to the Defendant.
  • A further claim was brought on behalf of the estate to set aside an assignment of one half share of the beneficial interest in their mother’s property to the Defendant on the basis that it was procured by undue influence and for an account of rent received by her sister.

The Court held that the deceased had knowledge and approval of her Will and was not unduly influenced in setting out her final wishes.

Knowledge and approval

As the Claimant was neither challenging lack of testamentary capacity nor that it was executed incorrectly, the burden lay with the Defendant to demonstrate that their mother knew and approved of the Will’s contents.

Although the 2012 Will was a significant departure from the previous one, the Court did not accept the Claimant’s argument that the Defendant’s involvement in the Will preparation was suspicious.

A solicitor’s note provided as evidence said: “She [the Deceased] was adamant she did not want [the Claimant] to inherit as she had done nothing for her mother and no longer wants to see her, she said her daughter [the Defendant] does everything for her”. The Court found that this clearly explained the change of wishes that subsequently occurred. The mother had also independently signed a statement around the time of making her Will which confirmed this rationale.

The solicitor’s attendance notes provided further confirmation that the deceased knew exactly what she was doing, with knowledge and approval of the contents of the her Will. This part of the claim was duly dismissed.

Undue influence

The Claimant contended that their mother was heavily reliant on the Defendant who subsequently placed undue influence on her when her Will was made, taking advantage of her frailty and vulnerable state. She also argued that the deceased had originally intended to make a pecuniary legacy to her grandchildren but Defendant had persuaded their mother against doing this.

The Court dismissed the Claimant’s arguments on the basis that there had been no concerns regarding the deceased’s mental capacity and that merely being frail did not preclude a person from making a valid Will. The Court noted that whilst the deceased did rely on the Defendant, she was not her sole source of support.

Their mother had wished to leave the Claimant’s children a legacy in her Will and had discussed this intention with her solicitor. The Defendant reminded her that the only way to achieve this would be to sell her house, which she did not wish to do. Thus, despite the Court accepting that the Defendant persuaded the deceased not to go ahead a legacy, it held that persuasion did not equate to undue influence.

The Court concluded that the Claimant’s allegation of undue influence was not substantiated. In light of the breakdown in her relationship with the Claimant, the mother’s decision to the change her Will was understandable.

Having been unsuccessful on the first part of her claim, the Claimant was not entitled to pursue a derivative claim on behalf of the deceased’s estate.