Disputed will of illiterate property mogul set aside for lack of knowledge and approval
In the remarkable case of Reeves v Drew & Ors  EWHC 159 (Ch) last month, the High Court handed down judgement setting aside the will of ‘an incredibly sharp, tough and successful businessman’ who died leaving an estate worth approximately £100 million on the basis that the testator did not know or approve the will’s contents. The Court found that the testator’s youngest daughter had ‘likely engineered it so that she would get the bulk of his estate’ and that the solicitor’s preparation of the will was ‘reckless and quite possibly dishonest’. Not only is this one of the highest value probate claims in England and Wales, it is one of the most shocking in terms of the findings made about the conduct of the Claimant and the will draftsman.
The testator had made a previous will in 2012 leaving 80% of his residuary estate to one of his sons and his two daughters in equal shares and 20% to his two grandchildren in equal shares. In 2014, the testator made a further will which substantially departed from his previous one and left his residuary estate to his two daughters on an 80/20 split and omitted his son and his two grandchildren. The daughter who benefited from 80% of the residuary estate under the 2014 will issued a claim for it to be pronounced as valid. In response, the son who was a residuary beneficiary under the 2012 will but was omitted under the 2014 will claimed that the 2014 will was procured by undue influence by the daughter over their father.
The judge considered evidence from a staggering 49 witnesses and found that, on a balance of probabilities, the testator was illiterate and that the 2014 will was not read by, or read out to, the testator before the testator signed it. The judge found that the solicitor who drafted the will inappropriately involved the Claimant in the preparation of the 2014 will and sought to cover up her involvement by producing inaccurate and inconsistent attendance notes of meetings with the testator. The judge found that the 80/20 split of the residuary estate was preserved in order to ‘mask the substantive alterations’ that were being made to the beneficiaries and that the Claimant had failed to put forward any good reason for the substantial changes. The Judge concluded that the testator did not know or approve the contents of the 2014 will and declared that it was invalid and that the 2012 will was valid.
In reaching this conclusion, the Judge dismissed the son’s claim that the Claimant had unduly influenced their father to make the 2014 will, which the Judge considered to be inconsistent with a lack of knowledge and approval and not proved. This case presents an extraordinary account of a ‘ruthless and manipulative’ daughter who engineered her father’s execution of a will without his knowledge or approval so as to inherit the bulk of his estate and an ‘extraordinarily unprofessional’ solicitor who helped to conceal her involvement. Whilst the involvement of a solicitor would usually strengthen the presumption of validity of a will, it is noteworthy that in this case it was ‘quite the reverse’. The case also demonstrates how important pursuing applications for pre-action disclosure can be in cases like this. Had such applications not been pursued here, it would not have been possible to so successfully attack the dishonest evidence that was put forward. Mobile phone records, solicitors’ notebooks and conveyancing documents were all produced through applications for specific disclosure which contributed to the undermining of several key witness testimony and which impacted the ultimate decision of the Court.