Family disputes frequently focus on inheritance and can inflict immense anxiety and pain on all concerned. A case concerning a young man who died tragically when he stepped in front of a train, however, showed that the best way to avoid such conflict is to make a professionally drafted will.
The deceased, who had learning disabilities and mental health issues, was aged just 35 when he died but was a wealthy man due to an inheritance from his grandfather. An inquest resulted in a verdict of accidental death. Following his death, his mother was granted letters of administration on the basis that he had died intestate – without making a valid will.
However, his uncle by marriage, with whom he had had a close relationship while he was growing up, subsequently launched a probate claim on the basis that he had in fact made two duplicate wills prior to his death. The wills, under which the uncle stood to inherit cash and property, were in identical terms and were apparently executed on the same day.
The deceased's mother claimed that the wills were forgeries which had been created several years after his death. She pointed to the fact that they had been signed on his behalf by a man who was later convicted of an unrelated fraud and jailed. The man, who signed the wills in exercise of an enduring power of attorney granted to him by the deceased, was not a solicitor but was on occasions willing to let others think he was. He had since died.
In ruling on the matter, the High Court acknowledged that the involvement of a fraudster in the wills' execution created a potential for forgery. However, in finding that they were genuine, the Court could detect nothing in their contents to arouse suspicion. The fraudster gained nothing from the wills and, under their terms, the deceased's mother and brother remained his principal beneficiaries.
After hearing evidence from handwriting experts, the two witnesses to the wills and others, the Court found that they were duly executed. They had been signed in the presence of the witnesses and the deceased, at the latter's direction. The Court was also satisfied that the deceased understood and approved their contents.
The grant of letters of administration to the deceased's mother was revoked and the Court pronounced in favour of the duplicate wills. Given the long history of dispute between members of the family, the Court also ruled it appropriate and necessary to appoint, in the mother's place, an independent professional as executor of the estate.