High Court Ruling Highlights Seriousness Of Undue Influence

Will Set Aside Following Estate Dispute Over Property

18.03.2013

By Rob Dixon

The issue of undue influence in relation to wills has been put into the spotlight following a High Court ruling on an estate dispute which set aside a mother’s will over concerns that she had been forced to change it by one of her sons, according to will dispute expert Julia Burns.

Mr Justice Mann made the ruling earlier this week in relation to the case of the will of Jessica Schrader, who died in 2008 but made a will two years earlier stating that her home should be left in its entirety to her son Nick.

Mrs Schrader’s other son Bill chose to contest the will, claiming his mother did not have the necessary mental capacity to make the will, did not understand the effect of her will and that she was unduly influenced by his brother. 

As a result of the decision to set aside the 2006 will, a previous will made in 1990 has been restored which means the brothers will share the family farm equally. As the losing party, Nick Schrader also faces paying the legal costs related to the case which have reached the same value as a half share in the farm.

According to Julia Burns, a solicitor who specialises in contested will disputes at Irwin Mitchell, the case highlighted how the courts tend to act when it comes to the issue of undue influence.

She explained: “From our work in relation to will disputes of all kinds, we have seen a number of circumstances in which people feel they have no option to contest a will and launch a legal challenge for what they believe is theirs.

“Undue influence is a very serious allegation to make and is normally very hard to prove in court, as it is very much reliant on the ability to point to strong evidence which can demonstrate to a court that the person making the will was coerced to the extent that their free will was completely overborne.

“With the principal witness in such cases not being alive to give evidence and the only other party who is likely to have been present at the time being the person who is accused of the undue influence, the difficulty is obvious.

“In handing down the judgment, Mr Justice Mann revealed his views that the son in this case was forceful with a powerful personality, which swayed him in his thinking that he was capable of exerting the necessary pressure. 

“The losing son’s evidence was also noted as being highly inconsistent therefore he clearly lost considerable credibility in the eyes of the Judge which can often be fatal.  This was a case where pressure being exerted caused an elderly, vulnerable lady to succumb for the sake of a quiet life.  It is towards the lower end of the scale in terms of seriousness – with actual physical abuse, violence and fraud being at the top – but the evidence was sufficient to amount to undue influence.

“It remains to be seen however if this highlights that courts are becoming more lenient in terms of proving undue influence and it will be interesting to see how future cases pan out.

Julia added: “Ultimately, this is an incredibly serious issue and we would urge anyone who believes a loved one has faced similar issues to seek advice on the issue as soon as possible. 

“If they are to have a chance of success, these cases need to be prepared very carefully by experts in this field.  The quality and consistency of the evidence is crucial and deficiencies in this area in this case may ultimately have contributed to the claimant’s downfall.”

Read more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise relating to Undue Influence