12 June 2024
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Where there's a will…is there always a way? How to protect your will from claims of undue influence

To The Point
(4 min read)

In the recent case of Langley v Qin, the court meticulously reviewed legal and medical records before setting aside a will on the basis that the testator had been unduly influenced - a significant and unusual ruling. The case highlights the need for individuals to promptly update their estate plans following substantial life changes and to ensure all legal documents accurately reflect their current wishes, thereby safeguarding against unintended outcomes. This case also serves as a vital reminder of the intricacies of estate planning, the effects of marriage on wills, and the importance of comprehensive legal documentation.

In this particular case, Mr Harrington (the deceased) had been married for 66 years and had a daughter (Ms Langley) from this marriage. After the death of his first wife, Mr Harrington remarried in 2019 and subsequently drafted a new will in March 2020. This will named his second wife, Ms Qin  and her son as the sole beneficiaries, disinheriting his daughter. Mr Harrington's estate was worth in excess of £1,000,000 at the time of his death.

His daughter challenged the will on several grounds, questioning her father's mental capacity to make informed decisions, the possibility of undue influence from his second wife, and whether Mr Harrington truly understood and approved the will's contents.

Throughout the proceedings, the court meticulously examined solicitors' file notes, medical records, and the sequence of events leading to the will's creation. This examination revealed doubts about Harrington's mental state and the circumstances under which the will was made. Ultimately, the court found in favour of his daughter, declaring the will invalid due to Mr Harrington's lack of testamentary capacity, insufficient knowledge and approval, and undue influence exerted by his second wife.

However, the court confirmed that it did not have the authority to also set aside Mr Harrington's marriage to the second wife. Crucially, this meant that Harrington had effectively died intestate, with his previous wills nullified by his latest marriage. Accordingly, the laws of intestacy apply to Mr Harrington's estate such that his second wife will still inherit a fixed net sum of £270,000 and half of the remaining estate value, despite the judgment against her.

Key Takeaways:

1.    Estate planning: Under English law, marriage will automatically invalidate any existing will (unless the will is specifically drafted in contemplation of the marriage). Therefore it's crucial to take expert legal advice ahead of upcoming nuptials and re-visit and update your will during such significant life changes to ensure your wishes remain honoured.

2.    Keep Detailed Records: Accurate and comprehensive documentation by your solicitor and other expert advisors is vital, particularly if making significant changes which may potentially lead to disgruntled beneficiaries (and therefore estate disputes). Instruct experienced specialists and ensure all decisions and instructions are well-recorded to support your intentions.

3.    Court's Power and Marriage: While the court's judgment focused on the will's validity, it indirectly touched upon the effect of marriage on wills, reaffirming the decision as to whether a marriage has revoked a will is a matter of legal principle (rather than a matter for judicial discretion). In this case, it meant that the court had no power to uphold Mr Harrington's original will and instead were bound to determine that his second marriage revoked the will, which in turn led to him dying intestate and a large part of his estate passing to his second wife in any event. This iniquitous result means that many are calling for an urgent review to the law and we expect to see momentum build in support of such review following this judgment.

Contributors to this article were senior private wealth finance paralegal Twiza Mutambo.

Next steps

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