Highly Strung: A Family Dispute over a Harpist’s Will

Another legal challenge to a Will has hit the headlines recently; Iain Hayward brought a claim disputing the validity of a Will made by his late father, Jack. Whilst Iain was to inherit a number of items, including an antique harp, his grounds for complaint were that none of his late father’s £1.3 million fortune was to be left to him.

The Background

The Will in question was made in 2013, around 5 months before Jack Hayward’s death. In life, Jack was a renowned harpist and ran a business selling, insuring, and repairing harps. The Will’s terms left Iain all of Jack’s remaining shares in the harp business (which Iain largely owned already) and around £500,000 of the £1.3 million fortune to Fiona Kunicki – Jack’s daughter and Iain’s sister. The remainder was split between Jack’s five grandchildren, which included Iain’s two daughters.

Accompanying the Will was a Letter of Wishes. A Letter of Wishes is a non-binding instruction to the people who will be dealing with your estate upon death (your Personal Representatives). It is usually used to indicate specific personal possessions that you wish to go to certain people. One of the benefits of this arrangement is: if difficulties arise in carrying out such instructions, the Will’s operation won’t be affected. In Jack’s Letter of Wishes, he indicated that Iain should be given his antique harp, his collection of musical manuscripts, and his signed photographs of famous harpists.

Iain was not content with this; reportedly stating that the harp was worth £3,000 at most. He commenced legal proceedings seeking to undermine the validity of the Will and so allow an earlier Will, which Jack made in 2008, to take effect instead. This earlier Will gave Iain 25% of the estate, in addition to Jack’s remaining interest in the business.

Amongst Iain’s arguments disputing the validity of the 2013 Will, was the allegation that Jack had not then had the mental capacity to make a Will, pointing to the relatively short period between its creation and Jack’s death. Iain also argued that Fiona had “poisoned” Jack’s mind against him. At the same time, he alleged that he had made a deal with Fiona in 2007 that, due to their father’s temperamental nature, they would split their inheritance between them if either should be cut out of Jack’s Will.

The Court’s Decision

The Court, however, dismissed Iain’s claim and it appears that two main factors were crucial their decision:

  • Witness evidence: Frequently in cases of this nature, evidence given by the parties and other witnesses plays a big part in determining the outcome. The Court considered Iain to be inconsistent in the evidence he gave and so refused to accept a number of his arguments. Furthermore, all of the other witnesses involved supported the contention that Jack had been mentally capable to make the Will in 2013, whereas Iain could not provide any specific basis for his argument to the contrary.
  • A professionally prepared Will: The solicitor involved in the preparation of the 2013 Will had been aware of Jack’s potential mental health concerns. Accordingly, they took all of the necessary and appropriate steps to ensure that a valid Will was made. This included obtaining a GP’s opinion to confirm that Jack had the mental capacity required to make a Will.

What Might This Mean for Me?

For anyone worried about their Will being challenged after death, this is a heartening result. The Court upheld the Will as valid – even in the face of allegations of mental incapacity and the existence of a prior Will which contained marked differences to it.

It appears Jack himself anticipated Iain’s objections and was reported to have said that his son would be “very angry” about the Will’s terms. The Court accepted that Jack had a rational basis for not wanting Iain to inherit any money, as evidence pointed towards Jack perceiving his son as a “spendthrift”.

However, the outcome could have been different if Jack had not sought professional advice when preparing his Will in 2013. Even if evidence had supported Jack’s intention to avoid leaving cash to Iain, if the 2013 Will had been declared invalid, the 2008 Will would have taken effect and Iain would have received the 25% share of the estate under its terms.

Extra precautions were taken to confirm Jack had the required mental capacity to make a Will in 2013 and being able to demonstrate this went a long way towards undermining one of Iain’s key arguments.

Qualified legal advice should always be sought when making a Will, especially if there is any potential for a dispute to arise.

Need further help?

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this post, such as steps you can take to avoid disputes over a potentially controversial Will, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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