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High Court upholds a Will challenge on the grounds of undue influence

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The High Court last week handed down their judgment in the case of Schrader v Schrader [2013] EWHC 466 (Ch), which was a Will dispute over the estate of Jessica Schrader, who had died in January 2008, at the age of 98.

Jessica has made a Will in April 2006, and other than some small bequests to grandchildren and others, left her house to her son Nick. The remainder of her estate was left between Nick, and her other son Bill, equally.  She had previously made a Will in 1990, which had left both the house and the remainder of the estate, to Nick and Bill equally.  The 2006 Will therefore gave Nick the whole house, rather than just half of it. The half share of the house was therefore at the centre of the dispute, and was valued between £110,000 and £160,000.

A lengthy legal battle was commenced, as Bill tried to challenge the Will on the basis that his mother had either lacked sufficient mental capacity to make it, or alternatively, was unduly influenced by Nick into making it.  The case concluded following a four-day trial last month.

The Court was told how Nick had arranged for a Will writer to come to her house to make the Will, and the Court also heard evidence of Nick’s character.

In handing down his judgment, the judge found that the Will was rational and that there was insufficient evidence to show that Jessica did not have mental capacity to make the Will, and that she had knowledge and approval of the contents of her Will.

However, the judge upheld the argument that Jessica had been unduly influenced by Nick into changing her Will, taking into account her vulnerability, her dependence on Nick, the engagement of a will-writer at Nick’s behest and with no prior contact with the family, and Nick’s character and violent history. The 2006 Will was therefore found to be invalid, and Jessica’s estate now passes under the terms of the 1990 Will.

This is a very interesting case, as claims for undue influence in Will disputes are very difficult to prove, and rarely successful. Usually, if a solicitor is instructed to prepare a Will, there is a presumption that that person has had independent legal advice and has given instructions for the Will, free of any outside influence.  However in this case, the judge commented that when taking into account the extensive evidence in this case, it was more likely than not that Nick had put pressure on her to change her Will.

As a result of losing the case, Nick was ordered to pay not only his own legal costs, but also all of his brother’s legal costs, which will likely be taken from his share of the house, and remainder of the estate.  These costs have been reported to be around £110,000.

As a solicitor specialising in inheritance disputes, and also as a registered member of the Association of Contentious Trusts and Probate Specialists (ACTAPS), it is important that the cost implications of cases like this are considered from the outset. Options such as mediation or Alternative Dispute Resolution should always be considered at an early stage to try and reach settlement without costly court proceedings.

By inheritance disputes solicitor, Heather Korwin-Szymanowska

Anyone facing this kind of inheritance dispute with their family members, or wishing to contest a will for any other reason, should always seek specialist legal advice at the earliest opportunity. For a fixed fee of £49.95, you can have a 30 minute appointment with either myself, or another solicitor who specialises in your kind of case.  The appointment can be either on the telephone, or face to face, depending on your preference.  We will take some details from you before the appointment, and then the solicitor will discuss your case with you, and what your options are.  If your case is something that we can then help you further with, we can then discuss your funding options with you.