How to contest a will?
Where a will has been executed in suspicious circumstances, the court must be satisfied that the person making the will understood and approved the contents of the will. In suspicious circumstances, those contesting a will will often raise allegations of undue influence (i.e. the deceased was coerced into making the will), or that criminal activity has taken place. It is often difficult to succeed with such arguments, as the burden of proof is high. An alternative, where suspicious circumstances exist, is to raise an argument that the person who made the will did not have the necessary knowledge to understand their will and that they did not approve the content. The burden of proof for such cases is far less.
Presumption of knowledge and approval
Where a will has been executed correctly (i.e. the testator has signed the will in the presence of two witnesses who have also signed the will) and the testator had the necessary testamentary capacity, knowledge and approval will be presumed.
However, there are certain circumstances, which are detailed below, whereby it must be proved that the testator had the necessary knowledge to understand the content of their will and that they approved the content.
Exceptions to the presumption of knowledge and approval
If the testator is one of the following, the court will require sufficient evidence to prove that the testator understood and approved the content of the will, namely:
- deaf and/or dumb;
- cannot speak or write or is paralysed;
- blind or illiterate; or
- the will is alleged to have been signed by another person for the deceased at his direction.
Circumstances which excite the vigilance and suspicion
In addition to the exceptions above, while there is a general presumption of knowledge and approval, if the circumstances surrounding the will being executed raise such suspicion, it will then be for those who believe the will to be valid to call evidence to dispel the suspicions. The greater the suspicion, the greater the burden on the person trying to prove the will to dispel that suspicion. Even if there are suspicious circumstances, if the will is a simple document, it is often easier to demonstrate knowledge and approval.
A classic example of a case in which the last will of the testator was found to be invalid on the grounds of knowledge and approval is Vaughan and others v Vaughan . The judge, in this case, found that the facts led themselves to be “bristled with suspicious circumstances”. A beneficiary gave instructions for the will, and the person who made the will took no advice in relation to the will. It was suggested that a medical opinion be obtained, but the beneficiary ignored this advice. The testator did not read over the will at the time it was executed and accordingly, the judge found that they did not have the necessary knowledge and approval.
In circumstances where part of the will is read over to the testator but not all the will, the rules relating to knowledge and approval may only apply to part of the will.
Where a will is successfully disputed, and the court confirms the will is invalid, if there is not an earlier valid will, then the testator’s estate will be distributed according to the intestacy rules.
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