Challenging a will - recent case law

Wills found to be invalid due to insane delusions

The Court has recently given its ruling in the case of John Clitheroe v Susan Bond, a dispute between brother and sister over the estate of their late mother, Jean Clitheroe.

In two wills made in 2010 and 2013 Jean effectively disinherited Susan (Sue), more or less leaving everything to John. She gave detailed reasons for this, but despite that Sue sought to challenge the wills on the grounds that her mother did not have the necessary testamentary capacity to make the wills or that her mother’s mind had been poisoned against her.

When deciding these cases it is for the person seeking to prove the validity of the wills (in this case John) to persuade the Court that the deceased at the necessary testamentary capacity at the times the wills were made in 2010 and 2013. If he cannot do that he must prove that either any delusions she had did not affect how she disposed of her property and/or that if her mind was poisoned it did not affect her dispositions of her property.

The medical experts in this cases were unable to say that Jean did not have an affective disorder, indeed it was considered likely that she did have an undiagnosed disorder comprising a complex grief reaction and persisting depression from the death of her daughter (Debs) to cancer some 7 years earlier, and that this affected her testamentary capacity. John was unable to prove otherwise.

It is worth noting here that this is not the same as suggesting that she was suffering from some kind of cognitive impairment brought on by old age and dementia as is often the focus when the question of capacity is concerned. Here there was no doubt that Jean knew and understood the nature of her actions and their effects.

The Court went on to consider whether by reason of the affective disorder, Jean was suffering from insane delusions regarding her daughter Sue and/or was her mind poisoned against Sue at the time she made her wills. In both cases the Court decided, yes. The facts surrounding this finding related to Jean’s change of stance regarding the fact Sue had been abused by her father (which has caused the break-up of her marriage), wrongly accusing Sue of stealing, alleging that Sue she ransacked Deb’s bungalow and wrongly accusing Sue of being a shopaholic and spendthrift.

The Judge found that all of these were insane delusions which influenced the making of both her wills. This was because there was no rational basis for Jean to have held such beliefs or given such reasons.

But perhaps the most significant issues were those around the time of Debs death and Jean’s inability to accept that Debs was going to die. Jean and Sue had a serious disagreement regarding Debs’ care – Sue wanting to call the Macmillan nurse to provide Debs with morphine, which Jean was against. The Court found that this marked the turning point in Jean’s relationship with Sue, and the medical experts concluded that Jean’s subsequent feelings of guilt about Debs’ death were projected on to Sue.

Whilst the legal position remains that a person may disinherit someone for inadequate, capricious, mean or bad motives - as long as that harsh judgment is not one that arose from some mental defect. In this case Jean’s insane delusions did amount to a mental defect.

Therefore neither the 2010 nor the 2013 Wills were held to be valid because John failed, on the balance of probabilities, to prove that Jean was not suffering from an affective disorder of the mind and was not suffering from delusions which affected her testamentary capacity when she made either will. The effect of this is the Jean died as if she had not made a will and her estate will be split equally between John and Sue.

Cases such as this demonstrate the importance of taking good legal advice when making and will particularly if you are inclined to disinherit a close family member. Whilst challenging wills on the basis of mental capacity can be difficult this case shows that in certain circumstances such challenges might be successful. Each case does of course turn on its own facts.

Published 28 May 2020

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