In an important case which marks a distinct liberalisation of the courts’ approach to the formalities of will writing, an adoptive son who was caught in a legal nightmare after his parents accidentally signed each other’s mirror wills has had his rightful inheritance upheld by the Supreme Court.
There was no doubt that Maureen and Alfred Rawlings had intended to leave their £70,000 life savings to Terry Marley, whom they had ‘unofficially adopted’ and to disinherit their two natural sons. However, when each of them signed the other’s will before they died, the High Court and the Court of Appeal each decided that there was nothing that they could do to put right the couple’s error.
Both courts ruled that Mr and Mrs Rawlings had died intestate and that their savings thus passed to their natural sons. However, in reversing those decisions, the President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, ruled that it was a ‘classic case’ in which the Court could do justice by rectifying the mistake.
Describing it as “a very clear case”, he said that the couple’s testamentary intentions were entirely clear and that their error could, in a broad sense, be described as no more than ‘a clerical error’. It was therefore appropriate for the Court to exercise its powers of rectification under Section 20 of the Administration of Justice Act 1982 and to confirm Mr Marley’s inheritance.
Elisabeth Pollard, a Partner at Winchester law firm Shentons, commented: “This case illustrates the importance of ensuring that wills are properly signed and witnessed. It’s good news that the wishes of Mr and Mrs Rawlings were eventually carried out; however I am aware of many instances where someone’s wishes couldn’t be carried out because their will was of the ‘off the shelf’ variety and was invalid because of the way it had been signed and/or witnessed. We offer a free service where we can check the validity of a will and I would be pleased to discuss this with anyone who may have concerns.” Mrs Pollard can be contacted on 01962 844544.