Lessons from Middleton v Boorman: Knowledge and Approval of Wills

Lord Neuberger stated in the 2010 case of Gill v Woodall that "…a court should be very slow to find that a will does not represent the genuine wishes of the testatrix simply because its terms are surprising, inconsistent with what she said during her lifetime, unfair, or even vindictive or perverse."

The Court found that a Will made in 2014 did not in fact represent the testator’s genuine wishes in the 2020 case of Middleton v Boorman.  There was no challenge to the Will based on lack of capacity or undue influence but the Court held the Will not to be valid because the person signing it, the late Beatrice Cole, did not know and approve the terms the Will contained.  The Will provided relatively small gifts totalling £16,000 to four of Beatrice’s children, with the remainder of the estate estimated at around £184,000 being left to her daughter Linda.

The following issues, described as a “tug of war” by the judge, were considered to be relevant:

Bank accounts:

Shortly after the death of Beatrice’s husband, Linda’s son Nicholas had arranged for the opening of an account in the joint names of him and Beatrice.

In January 2015, the Claimants (Beatrice’s four excluded children) then arranged for the opening of a new account in Beatrice’s sole name, with the money in the joint account being transferred into it, effectively giving them control.

Nicholas then arranged for the sole account to be closed and for the monies to be transferred back to the joint account so that he once again had control.

Each time, Beatrice appeared to willingly sign the necessary documents without appreciating the impact of the documents which she had signed.  The judge considered Beatrice to be a trusting person who would sign an important document put in front of her without necessarily considering its detail or effect.

Documents:

Nicholas took Beatrice to the offices of The Will Centre on two occasions in 2015 to try to collect her 2014 Will.  The judge stated Nicholas had “told the Deceased what to so say.”  However, Beatrice “fluffed the lines she had been given by Nicholas” and told The Will Centre she was content for the Will to stay at The Will Centre.

Nicholas subsequently visited The Will Centre alone but was unsuccessful, but then arranged the visit a different firm of solicitors where Beatrice signed a letter of authority authorising the release of the documents from The Will Centre.

Beatrice went from positively confirming that she wanted her Will to stay with The Will Centre to expressly authorising their release within a couple of weeks.

This was considered once again by the judge to be a case of Beatrice being prepared to sign an important document without fulling appreciating the detail and effect because it had been suggested to her by a member of her family.

Powers of Attorney:

Prior to her husband’s death, Beatrice had made Powers of Attorney in favour of two of her children.

In July 2015, during one of her visits to The Will Centre with Nicholas, Beatrice then apparently signed documents revoking those Powers of Attorney.

In early March 2015, during a visit to a different firm of solicitors, Beatrice then signed a new Power of Attorney in favour of Linda.  A few days later, Beatrice was unable to recall the details of what she had very recently signed.

Just over a year later, Beatrice signed a further document revoking the Power of Attorney in favour of Linda.

Once again, the judge found Beatrice was willing to sign whatever important documents were put in front of her by a member of her family without any real appreciation of the detail and effect of what she was signing.

The 2014 Will:

The judge was “troubled” by the solicitor’s attendance note of 25 July 2014 when Beatrice gave instructions for the 2014 Will.

For the first part of the meeting, Nicholas was present and reference was made to Beatrice having fallen out with some of her children and having issues with bank accounts.  For the second part of the meeting, Mr Porter spoke to the Deceased alone.

However, the judge found that as with the accounts and documents, Beatrice appeared to have always been prepared to go along with whatever family member she was with at the time but without necessarily appreciating the detail and effect of what she was doing, including in the meeting in which she actually signed the 2014 Will.

As a result of Beatrice not appreciating the detail and effect of what she was signing, the judge was unable to find that she knew and approved the terms of the 2014 Will.

The judge found Nicholas’s conduct in relation to Beatrice’s finances to be suspicious, but he was not asked to find any wrongdoing within the context of the proceedings.

This case shows the extent to which the Court will consider the idiosyncrasies and habits of a testator and it highlights the need for a person to appreciate the gravity of that act and to ensure that documents are properly read and approved.

If you are seeking to uphold or challenge a Will, it is equally as important to obtain specialist legal advice as soon as possible.