Contentious Probate – Disputing a will

Thu 19th Jan 2023

A recent high-profile £100 million contentious probate court case serves as a cautionary reminder that when disputing a will, you should always get specialist legal advice from will solicitors, as Coodes’ Hayley Gaffney explains.

The extremely contentious probate case of Reeves v Drew & Ors [2022] EWHC 159 (Ch) has drawn a lot of attention recently and highlights several very serious issues about will disputes.

It also provides some useful reminders for anyone challenging a will, now or in the future, to take advice from will solicitors.

This case in the spotlight relates to a £100 million wills dispute relating to knowledge and approval or lack of. It also found several witnesses acted dishonestly, including the solicitor who prepared the will.

This wills dispute is one of the most valuable probate claims that has ever been determined in the UK.

Background

When Kevin Reeves died in 2019 after a long illness, he left an estate worth approximately £100 million. His will from 2012 divided 80 per cent of his estate between his three children (Louise, Bill, and Lisa) and 20 per cent between his two grandchildren (Ryan and Ria).

Following Kevin’s death, his daughter Louise produced a will seemingly dated in 2014. This had not been seen before and appeared to leave 80 per cent of his substantial estate to her and 20 per cent to his other daughter, Lisa.

His son Bill and two grandchildren Ryan and Ria had seemingly been left out of this will. This ‘unleashed a bitter feud’ between his children and grandchildren that culminated in a three-week trial involving nearly 50 witnesses.

The deceased’s son Bill and grandson Ryan challenged the validity of the 2014 will while Louise asked the Court to pronounce in favour of that will.

Judgment

In making a determination about the disputed 2014 will, the judge at the High Court trial had to decide whether the deceased knew and approved of the contents of this will; and whether the deceased’s execution of the 2014 will was the result of the exercise of undue influence by Louise, who was now the main beneficiary.

The main point scrutinised by the Court over the will dispute was whether the deceased (Kevin) was able to exercise his ‘own free will’ in making the 2014 will and whether it reflected his true testamentary wishes – the deceased’s literacy was also in question.

The judge found that, “There is no evidence that the deceased did actually read the 2014 will by himself. The claimant (Louise) would have known that the deceased would not have been able to read the 2014 will by himself. I think she was relying on his illiteracy…to make it very unlikely that he would try to read the draft 2014 will himself.”

There were several allegations and counter-allegations between the parties about dishonesty and the Judge (Mr Justice Michael Green) made several findings of this, particularly in relation to Louise, the deceased’s accountant and the will solicitors who prepared both wills.

Ultimately, the Judge found against the 2014 will on the basis that the deceased had lacked the requisite knowledge and approval for it to be valid and that there had been ‘extraordinary fraud´ engineered by Louise against him.

The full Judgment can be found here.

Lessons to learn

What this case highlights are the lengths that some people will go to, even family members, at the expense of other family members to benefit from someone’s estate.

A key lesson is just how important evidence is when it comes to challenging a will, such as in this case. During proceedings, parties are required to comply with disclosure of evidence, whether it is supportive or otherwise of their case.

Disclosure of evidence clearly failed in this case and following applications for provision of it where it had previously not been provided. Ultimately that disclosed evidence showed the dishonesty and the close connection between Louise and the solicitor who prepared the wills which, up to that point, had not been proven.

Disputing a will – will solicitors

The case of Reeves v Drew & Ors [2022] EWHC 159 (Ch) serves as a reminder that you should always get the help of specialist will dispute solicitors if you have any concerns about the estate of a loved one or when challenging a will.

Contacting will solicitors, who specialise in will disputes, who can assist with investigations and pursue a case robustly and appropriately from the outset is imperative.

You can find more information about Coodes’ will disputes team here, use our Contact Us form or call 0800 328 3282.

Thu 19th Jan 2023

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