Two brothers were denied their rightful inheritance after their frail step-mother was pressured into changing her will by a relative, the High Court has ruled. The 75-year-old widow’s free will had been ‘worn down’ by her brother-in-law who had exerted undue influence upon her.
The brother-in-law’s attempts at coercion began after the death of the widow’s husband and took the form of persistent telephone calls which left her increasingly distraught. The result was that the woman, who was by then very fragile, signed a fresh will in December 2008 which left the bulk of her £594,000 estate to her brother-in-law’s children.
Her step-sons, who had viewed her as a ‘second mother’, were left just £10,000 each. Under their step-mother’s previous will, executed in 2005, she had left her entire estate to ‘her boys’ to whom she had been very close since marrying their father in 1966.
The brothers challenged the 2008 will, the terms of which had left them ‘shell-shocked’ after they were disclosed at their step-mother’s funeral. Their case was unopposed by the beneficiaries of the 2008 will and the brother-in-law also played no active part in the proceedings.
Overturning the disputed will and declaring in favour of the 2005 will, the court noted that the woman had been in a ‘very fragile physical and mental state’ in the months after her husband’s death and there was evidence that she had complained of ‘not feeling right’ on the day she signed the 2008 will.
Much of the brother-in-law’s coercion had taken the form of repeated cajoling by telephone which had driven the woman to ask a friend to answer the telephone on her behalf. By the time she executed the will, the previously ‘feisty’ elderly lady had a chronic liver ailment and poor mobility due to hip fractures.
There was cogent evidence that the woman’s free will had been overborne and the court’s conclusions were reinforced by the collective ‘shock and surprise’ among her friends and loved ones on learning that she had all but disinherited her step-sons.
Shaun Underhill, a Partner at Winchester Solicitors’ firm Shentons, commented “This case illustrates the circumstances under which a will might successfully be challenged. We would be pleased to advise anyone who believes that they might have grounds to dispute the terms of a will.”