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'Mixed-up Wills' ruled invalid by Court of Appeal

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The Court of Appeal handed down their ruling in the case of Marley v Rawlings [2012] EWCA Civ 61 last week confirming that where couples sign the wrong Wills by mistake, those Wills are not valid and cannot be rectified by the Court.

The case involved an elderly married couple, Mr & Mrs Rawlings, who had both made simple Mirror Wills leaving everything to each other, and in the event of both of them dying, leaving everything to Terry Marley, who, whilst not related to them, they had raised and treated as their adopted son. Solicitors were instructed to prepare the Wills, and the solicitor and his secretary both went to the couple’s home to supervise the execution. Despite this, the couple managed to each sign the wrong Will without anybody noticing. The error was then not spotted until after both of them had passed away, almost seven years later, with Mr Rawlings being the last one to die.

The Court of Appeal, upholding the decision of the High Court from earlier last year, found that Mr Rawlings’ Will was invalid, and as a result, his estate passed under the rules of intestacy.  These are the rules that apply when someone dies without leaving a Will. Under these rules, the couple’s estate then passed to their two natural sons, whom the couple had not wanted to benefit, and had not provided for in their Wills.  Their property still passed to Mr Marley, as he had owned the property with them as joint tenants, but their net estate, thought to be worth in the region of £70,000 then passed to their sons.

Terry Marley had brought his claim to rectify the Wills under section 20 Administration of Justice Act 1982, and challenge this outcome.  The Act states that a Will can be rectified if the mistake was either due to a clerical error, or due to a failure to understand the testator's instructions.  However, the High Court confirmed that neither of those situations applied. Last week, the Court of Appeal agreed with the High Court, and upheld their decision, confirming that, irrespective of the clear intentions of the deceased, the requirements for a valid Will are strict requirements, and under these circumstances, the Wills would not be valid.

As a result of the Wills being mixed up, which many could consider to be an easy mistake to make, Mr Marley lost any entitlement to the £70,000 estate. 

As a solicitor specialising in both contested Wills cases, and in professional negligence claims against solicitors, I see many cases where intended beneficiaries have lost out on their inheritance as a result of a mistake or error made by the testator.  I would always recommend that solicitors be instructed to ensure that a Will is properly drafted and executed, to avoid any difficulties and legal costs, after that person dies.  It costs very little to have a solicitor draft a Will properly for you, compared to the thousands of pounds it can cost to put it right after they die.  If you wish to enquire about making a Will, please contact our probate team on 01616 966 229, or use our online enquiry form.

However, solicitors do not always do their job properly, as this case appears to show.  Beneficiaries, even though they were not always clients of the firm, can bring a claim against the solicitors who prepare a Will, if they acted negligently, and if as a result of that negligence, the beneficiary does not inherited as was intended. 

Claims by disappointed beneficiaries are quite common, though this is a very specialist area of law, and therefore legal advice should be sought as soon as possible.  At Stephensons, we have solicitors such as myself, who specialise in both inheritance disputes, and professional negligence claims, and are therefore able to offer a niche service to you.

If you think you may have a claim, then contact our specialist litigation team on 01616 966 229. If you are of limited financial means, you may even be entitled to Legal Aid, and we can advise you of this quickly over the phone. We also offer a range of other funding options, including ‘no win no fee’ agreements, subject to eligibility.

By inheritance dispute solicitor, Heather Korwin-Szymanowska