Following on from my blog on the 31st July, the High Court has now made a decision in the case regarding the hairdresser who stood to inherit nearly £390,000 from two of her customers, by applying the very rare doctrine of Mutual Wills.
Mrs Fraser, 72, became a close friend of sisters Ethel Willson and Mabel Cook after she had set their hair every week for more than 40 years. The three women had been friends for such a long time that she did not charge for the hairdressing. Both widowed, the sisters had lived together, and made mutual Wills in 1991, leaving their estates to each other, to then be divided amongst close relatives and friends after they both died.
Mrs Cook died in 1995. Mrs Willson’s Will was dramatically altered just two months before she died in 2006. Under the terms of the new Will, Mrs Fraser stood to inherit almost £390,000, while 15 of the sisters' closest friends, godchildren and family members would get nothing.
Mrs Fraser claimed that she was entitled to the money because she was the only person to visit Mrs Willson in her dying days in hospital. However, the family argued that she exploited her friendship with Mrs Willson and didn't bother to tell anyone else that she had been admitted to hospital. They therefore started a Court case to challenge the new Will, on the basis that Mrs Willson was so 'frail and vague' that she was unfit to state her wishes.
A High Court judge has now ruled that, because the sisters had a mutual agreement before Mrs Cook died, the original will should be honoured. Although frail, Mrs Willson was found to have had sufficient mental capacity to make a valid will at the time. Therefore, whilst the challenge on the basis of lack of capacity failed, the 1991 Will remained binding, meaning Mrs Fraser has to give back the inheritance.
Judge Jonathan Gaunt QC ruled that the 'mirror Wills' the sisters signed in 1991 remained binding even after Mrs Cook's death, and were in fact ‘mutual Wills’. Normally, the Courts are reluctant to intervene with a person’s right to change their Will and leave their estate to who they wish. However, mutual wills create a contract between the two people making the Wills, preventing them from changing their Will after the first person dies.
This is a very interesting judgment, and this is one of only a small handful of cases in which the doctrine of mutual wills has been applied, and has been successful. In fact, according to the Law Society Gazette, it is thought that this is only the third successfully contested mutual Wills cases in the last 80 years. This case also shows how a Will can be challenged for a number of reasons, and some challenges may not always be apparent until you obtain specialist legal advice.
If you have a case similar to this, and require advice, you should contact our specialist Inheritance Dispute team on 01616 966 229. You may even be entitled to Legal Aid to help with your legal costs, subject to eligibility.
By consumer solicitor, Heather Korwin-Szymanowska