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Mirror mirror on the wall, will a mix up mean that I lose it all?

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Following on from my blog in February 2012 about the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Marley v Rawlings case, the Supreme Court last week handed down their judgment in the appeal of that decision, overturning the Court of Appeal. The judgment can be found here 

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, while 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 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. The High Court and Court of Appeal had previously dismissed Terry Marley’s claim that he should still be entitled to inherit, where it was clear that the deceased intended him to benefit, and where it was due to a clerical error.

Terry Marley appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, and in his judgment, Lord Neuberger said: ‘Whether the document in question is a commercial contract or a will, the aim is to identify the intention of the party or parties to the document by interpreting the words used in their documentary, factual and commercial context.’

He said: ‘I would therefore allow this appeal, and hold that the will should be rectified so that it contains the typed parts of the will signed by the late Mrs Rawlings in place of the typed parts of the will signed by Mr Rawlings.’

This is a very important judgment in my opinion as it has given the concept of a “clerical error” much wider meaning, with hope that many people may now be able to inherit under these kinds of circumstances.  Previously, only typing errors could be fixed, and not errors with the actual signing of a Will.

As member of the Association of Contentious Trusts and Probate Specialists, and 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.

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.

By Heather Korwin-Szymanowska, associate solicitor in the Will, trust and estate disputes team

For a fixed fee of £49.95, you can have a 30 minute appointment with a 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. For cases like this, we can sometimes consider a “no win no fee”  agreement, depending on the circumstances of your case.