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29 July 2020

Cat solves will validity mystery in stroke of luck

It is rather unusual for a cat to change the course of a probate dispute but there is a first time for everything. Judgement was handed down in the case of Wrangle v Brunt on 6 July 2020 and its resolution, helped by the cat, provides us with a variety of reminders, including the importance of following the usual rules for executing a will wherever possible, and the high standard required to prove a forgery.

The Brunt family

This case concerned the estate of Dean Brunt, who had died in a tragic accident in December 2007. Dean and his siblings, Dale and Venetia, had been brought up by their mother, Marlene. Venetia had become estranged from the rest of her family, preferring to live with Marlene’s sister Valerie and her husband Bob Wrangle.

Unfortunately for the Brunt family, the dispute over Dean’s estate followed straight from a disagreement about his grandfather’s estate, from which Dean received around £185,000 from the sale of some shares and a one-third share of his grandfather’s farm, the other thirds going to his siblings.

The three siblings had authorised Howard Day to act on their behalf in that dispute. Howard was not a solicitor but:

‘was on occasions willing to let others think he was one’ (paragraph 17).

He was to play a significant role in the dispute about Dean’s estate.

Intestacy

Marlene confirmed that Dean had died intestate and letters of administration were granted to her in July 2008.

Under the intestacy rules, Dean’s estate passed entirely to Marlene. Marlene promptly began to transfer Dean’s share of the farm to Dale. Despite Venetia’s enquiries, Dale and Marlene did not update her and Venetia assumed that she and Dale owned the farm equally. It was not until spring 2016 that she discovered that Marlene was in charge of Dean’s assets.

‘Dean’s Will’

Bob Wrangle enters the story in late 2017. Whilst searching Valerie papers (she had died in 2010), he and Venetia discovered a folder with “Dean’s Will” written on the outside. It was empty.

The alleged will materialised in 2018 in Howard Day’s offices, dated 2 March 1999 and signed by Howard, purportedly on Dean’s behalf. Bob and Venetia assumed that Marlene had known about this will and deliberately concealed its existence.

Court proceedings

Bob (assisted by Howard) issued a claim, seeking an order revoking the grant of letters of administration to Marlene on the grounds that Dean did not die intestate, and propounding the 1999 will. Dale and Marlene defended the claim, alleging that the will was invalid because it was (a) forged, (b) not validly executed and/or (c) prepared without Dean’s knowledge and approval.

Enter the cat. Following Howard’s death in September 2019, Bob had instructed new solicitors. On 2 February 2020, Bob’s new solicitor was gathering papers ready for shredding. Her cat knocked them over, revealing an original duplicate of Dean’s will.

Forgery: an uphill struggle

The duplicate wills were unusual in that they had been executed by Howard, rather than Dean himself. It is also unusual for two original wills to be executed together – rather, copies can be made of one original. Dale and Marlene maintained that they were forgeries, citing various typographical errors (including that Dean’s middle name was incorrect) and expressing suspicion that they had been discovered such a long time after Dean’s death, leading them to believe that they had not been created in 1999. They also relied on Howard’s bad character – he had been convicted of fraud in 2003 and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.

Bob, on the other hand, was adamant that Dean had said that he had made a will, which was supported by a considerable amount of evidence from Dean’s friends. This corresponded with documentary evidence that Dean had instructed Howard to prepare a will for him in February 1999. Although there was no evidence of Dean’s instructions as to the will’s contents, the will did not arouse suspicion – it left pecuniary legacies to Marlene, Valerie and Bob and split everything else, including Dean’s share in the farm, between Dale and Venetia.

Experts agreed that the two wills were exact duplicates, executed at the same time, and noted that the signature on the version discovered by the cat was steadier than that on the version discovered in 2018, weakening Dale and Marlene’s position that the will was a forgery.

Execution formalities

Section 9(a) of the Wills Act 1837 provides that:

‘no will shall be valid unless it is in writing, and signed by the testator, or by some other person in his presence and by his direction.’

The latter words were key: had Dean directed Howard to sign the will in his presence? On the evidence, and despite Howard’s bad character, the judge decided that Dean had positively affirmed that he wished Howard to sign the will on his behalf.

Outcome

The judge concluded that the will was not a forgery and had been validly executed, albeit in an unusual way. He revoked the grant of letters of administration to Marlene, removed her as executor and appointed an independent executor in her place.

The moral of the story

This case raises various important points. First, it emphasises that compelling evidence must be produced to support a forgery claim, even when, as in this case, the circumstances of the will may seem suspicious. Forgery is a serious allegation and is not taken lightly by the courts.

Secondly, the case highlights some of the ways in which these kinds of disputes can be avoided. A testator can inform family and friends that he has executed a will to minimise uncertainty as to whether one exists (although, as demonstrated by Dean’s case, this is not always infallible). From a will drafter’s perspective, detailed records should be kept, both of a client’s instructions and the will’s execution, and the will should be stored in a safe place.

As for valid execution, the testator should sign his own will if at all possible. By the time a disagreement arises as to whether he directed another person to sign it on his behalf, it will be too late to ask him.

By pure chance, the cat’s discovery of the duplicate will helped to answer these questions – but measures should always be taken to prevent such difficulties in case a cat is not available to assist.

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