2020-03-28
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Wills of vulnerable relatives: what happens if someone takes advantage of a loved one

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Posted by Martin Oliver on 26 March 2020

Martin Oliver Partner

Miss Joyce Relton was 93 when she died in August of 2014, leaving a will which gave her house (the most valuable asset she owned) to a “very dear friend”. The rest of her estate was divided amongst her surviving relatives including: 20% to each of her three nephews and nieces, 10% going to a non-blood relative who had married into the family, and the remaining 30% was to be divided between four charities.

By way of context, in November 2013 Miss Relton was diagnosed with a mild cognitive impairment. Physically, she suffered from severe ill health. Her medical records indicated that she was almost entirely immobile: she was a vulnerable lady.

A woman named Anne Dodge was the “very dear friend” to whom Miss Relton gave her house.Mrs Dodge was known by several different names, one of which being Anne Dodds (Mrs Dodds).

Suspicions about Mrs Dodds were first raised by Timothy Relton, one of Miss Relton’s nieces. Mr Relton instructed Martin Oliver, who is a partner at Wright Hassall, to challenge the will. Martin is a specialist in contentious probate cases which often involves considering whether a will is valid.

Whilst Martin was working on the case, Mrs Dodds made calls to him where she tried to explain how the execution and witnessing of the will had taken place. The accounts that she provided during these calls were not consistent with each other, nor the other evidence that was available. Consequently, Martin was asked to give evidence at the High Court in November 2019. At the trial Chief Master Marsh heard a significant amount of evidence surrounding the suspicious circumstances involved in this case, which included the following:

  • Mrs Dodds went out of her way to organise the meeting with the solicitor for Miss Relton to make the will. During one of the solicitor’s home visits, Mrs Dodds called the solicitor aside to impress upon her how much time and effort she had personally expended looking after Miss Relton.
  • Mrs Dodds picked up the will from the solicitor’s office and delivered it to Miss Relton herself.
  • Mrs Dodds gave her phone number to the solicitor to use as contact information for Miss Relton, then appeared to answer calls pretending to be Miss Relton. On one of these calls, the solicitor wanted to check whether any changes were needed and whether Miss Relton had changed her mind about the solicitor attending to witness the signature of the will. The solicitor made a note of the call which said: “Miss Relton was happy with the will, although Miss Relton is recorded as saying that she thought that Mrs [Dodds] should have everything.” It appears, howeverMrs Dodds spoke to the solicitor . It was later discovered that the signed will was even dated two days prior to this conversation. This was strange because the phone call was about how the will should be witnessed, and yet it was never raised that it had already been signed.
  • When speaking to Martin, Mrs Dodds alleged that the solicitor who had drafted the will was present when it was signed and went through the contents with Miss Relton. She also said that John Mitchell (the non-blood relative) and a Mr Conrad were present when Miss Relton signed her will. Mrs Dodds did not mention a Mr Alan Charles attending at any point. This was of interest because he signed Miss Relton’s will as the second witness. Further, the solicitor who drafted the will gave evidence that she did not attend Miss Relton’s house to witness the document or run through the contents of the will.
  • On a later call to Martin, Mrs Dodds changed her account and said that the solicitor was not present when the will was signed. Mrs Dodds said that she had been discussing matters with Mr Conrad and Mr Mitchell, and that she was confused in the previous conversation. Again, she failed to mention Mr Charles.
  • Martin wrote to one of the men who Mrs Dodds claimed to have witnessed the will, Mr Conrad. He asked a series of questions about the witnessing of the will and received a very confused response which did not answer any of the queries that he had raised.

As a result of the above, the case was made that Miss Relton did not know what was in her will and it was not valid because it had not been executed properly. When it comes to executing (or signing) your will, there is a presumption that if the document appears to meet the legal criteria, there is a very strong burden on the person who is seeking to prove that the will is invalid. To overcome this, you will need a lot of powerful evidence to convince a court that the will is not valid.

Requirements for a valid will

In short, the requirements for a valid will are as follows:

  1. You have to have mental capacity to make a will i.e. you understand what a will is, what you are doing with yours and the potential consequences of the decisions that you are making.
  2. Your will has to be made in writing and signed by you. There are some exceptions to the requirement for you to sign the will if you are unable to do so by reason of disability. In certain circumstances you can direct someone to sign your will for you.
  3. When you sign your will, it must be in the presence of two independent witnesses. Your witnesses should not be people who you are leaving any assets or money to in the will. They should be over the age of 18 and they will sign the document after watching you sign it.
  4. Surprisingly, it is not a compulsory legal requirement for a will to be dated. However, it is strongly recommended that the document is dated as this may assist to evidence your wishes and how they change over time.
  5. You need to have intended for the will to become binding when you signed it.
  6. You need to know what the contents of your will are.

Outcome

With this in mind, the court considered that it was very unlikely that Miss Relton knew what was in her will. The intimate involvement of Mrs Dodds in the preparation of Miss Relton’s will was clear on the evidence, and the inconsistencies in her account were taken into consideration.

Miss Relton’s relatives were successful, and the will that Mrs Dodds had pushed for was declared invalid. Miss Relton was declared as dying “intestate” which means that she died without making a valid will. If you die without making a will, there are a number of rules about how your estate is divided between any surviving family. The upshot in this case was that Mrs Dodds did not have any entitlement to the assets of Miss Relton.

We are glad that Miss Relton’s family achieved the outcome that they were seeking. It is sad to see individuals who actively seek out vulnerable people to take advantage of them. However, there are steps that you can take if you fear that a member of your family has been pressured into making a will, or if you do not think they have understood what they signed.

About the author

Martin specialises in inheritance disputes such as contesting a will and litigation involving wills and trusts.

Martin Oliver

Martin specialises in inheritance disputes such as contesting a will and litigation involving wills and trusts.

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