In 2021 the High Court ruled that Evan Richard Hughes' final will was invalid as he lacked the necessary testamentary capacity when he made his will. This was decided even though both a solicitor and medical professional determined that he did have the required testamentary capacity at the time of making his will.
The decision was appealed, and the Court of Appeal overturned the High Court's decision. The court held that Mr Hughes did have requisite capacity when he gave the instructions for his last will.
Facts of the case
Mr Hughes died on 7 March 2017; he was 84 years of age. He had made a will dated 7 July 2016. Mr Hughes had a previous will dated 7 August 2005. The previous will gave Mr Hughes' shares in the family business to his children Gareth and Carys and left the farmland to his son Elfred, who had been told he would be left the farmland throughout his life. Due to this, Elfred worked on the farm and the family business.
However, Elfred died on 18 September 2015, leading Mr Hughes to update his will in 2016. The significant change to the will made in 2016 was that Gareth was to inherit the majority of the farmland, with Elfred's wife Gwen inheriting the remaining farmland.
Mr Hughes had dementia when making his will in 2016, a crucial fact in this case.
The solicitor arranged for a capacity assessment of Mr Hughes to take place before the will was drafted and signed. The doctor reported no concerns about Mr Hughes' capacity during the evaluation, and the doctor confirmed that he would act as a witness. Therefore, the will was drafted and signed.
After Mr Hughes died in 2017, his daughter and daughter-in-law, Gwen, brought a claim against Gareth's attempt to put forward the last will made by Mr Hughes. They claimed that Mr Hughes lacked the necessary testamentary capacity when the will was made in 2016 due to his dementia.
The High Court Judge concluded that Mr Hughes did not have the requisite capacity. The Judge referred to Mr Hughes not understanding the arrangement that he and Elfred had throughout the years concerning the farmland and the extent of inheritance of such a change. The Judge also referred to the fact that the doctor was not aware of the extent of the change from Mr Hughes' previous will to his final will.
The Court of Appeal
The case was taken to the Court of Appeal, which held that the High Court Judge had not considered enough weight in the evidence of the doctor who assessed Mr Hughes around the time that he made his final will in 2016. The court also concluded that it was wrong for the Judge to give no weight to the solicitor's evidence, who obtained the instructions from Mr Hughes and drafted his will. If the Judge had applied the appropriate significance to the evidence presented before him, he would not have been able to reach the conclusion that he did.
The Court of Appeal felt as if the High Court Judge had placed fairness in his mind when thinking about testamentary capacity, and they confirmed that this goes against testamentary freedom.
This case has brought the topic of testamentary capacity back into calm waters; the judgment confirms that capacity reports are convincing as evidence but are not absolute. It is still important to ensure that a person has the necessary testamentary capacity and that, if necessary, capacity reports are obtained. It is also essential that the solicitor's instructions and attendance notes are detailed to limit the scope for anyone who wishes to contest a will on the grounds of capacity.
This case is far from over as there is also a claim for proprietary estoppel over the farmland, and this point has been remitted to the High Court for consideration. The court will have to address the detriment that Elfred suffered and whether Elfred's estate can benefit as Elfred has passed away.