21 June 2021 | Firm news | Article by Roman Kubiak TEP

Farming family in North Wales secures justice in tragic will dispute

A family in North Wales have won an inheritance dispute over large areas of farmland on Anglesey, marking an end to what the judge described as a “difficult and sad case.”

Solicitors at top 100 UK law firm, Hugh James successfully contested the third and final will of Evan Hughes, who died in March 2017, at the age of 84, arguing that he lacked the mental capacity needed to make a valid will. This is despite it being drawn up by a Solicitor at the time, and Evan passing a mental capacity assessment by a GP.

By the time of his death, Evan owned substantial assets - including a bungalow, a cottage, 79 acres of farmland known as Bwchanan and 58 acres of farmland known as Yr Efail. He was also an equal shareholder in the building company, J. Parry & Hughes Ltd, which he had at one time jointly owned with his cousin.

Evan had three children: Elfed, Carys and Gareth. In two previous wills, written in 1990 and 2005, Evan had gifted the entire Yr Efail farmland to his eldest son Elfed. Elfed farmed his father’s farmland, looking after his cattle together with his own farm. He worked incredibly long hours on the farms, relying on the well-known understanding, communicated by Evan to the family and wider community that, on Evan’s death, his shares in the building company would be left to his two other children, Gareth and Carys, equally and the farmland would be left to his son Elfed.

However, in September 2015, Elfed became depressed and took his own life. This had a devastating effect on his family, including his father. Evan was hospitalised three months later with gastrointestinal bleeding and subsequent tests found evidence of an old stroke and damage to the small sized blood vessels of the brain.

Despite this, in March 2016, Evan’s son Gareth took him to a local firm of solicitors to make a new will. The main change from the 2005 will was to leave Yr Efail to Gareth and the remainder of the farmland to Elfed’s widow, Gwen. On her death, this would then pass to her three sons, Stephen, Geraint and Sion equally.

A GP saw Evan in June 2016 and determined that he had capacity to make changes to his will. However, this point became a key factor and, following his death, prompted Elfed’s widow and eldest son, Stephen, to approach Hugh James to act on their behalf, to dispute the will and reclaim the farmland promised to Elfed by Evan in exchange for his many years of hard work.

During a “hybrid trial,” conducted in person and remotely, the GP, Dr Pritchard, cast doubt on his own assessment and said he had been “misled” over the changes in the will. He said he was led to believe that the 2016 will made only minor changes to the 2005 will - replacing Elfed with his three sons and, crucially, stating that this was also Evan’s belief at the time, a statement supported by witnesses called on behalf of the defendants.

This, in turn, undermined the single joint expert opinion of Dr Hugh Series which had been ordered by the court and in which Dr Series had also determined Evan to have capacity.

As such, HHJ Jarman QC, sitting as a High Court Judge was bound to set aside the 2016 will on the basis of lack of testamentary capacity.

HHJ Jarman QC gave three reasons to support his finding that Evan lacked capacity:

  1. he did not have the capacity to appreciate the understanding that he’d had with his son Elfed over many years, during which Elfed had looked after his stock and land for no financial reward, or the subsequent promises he made to Gwen and his grandsons.
  2. he lacked capacity to understand the extent of Yr Efail; and
  3. he lacked the capacity to understand that the changes implemented by the 2016 will were more than just minor changes to the 2005 will.

The Judge went one step further, finding that, even if the 2016 will was valid, Yr Efail should nevertheless pass to Elfed’s estate under the doctrine of proprietary estoppel, which in essence is the legal remedy to enforce a broken promise. This is because of the promises Evan made Elfed, that he would leave him Yr Efail, and which Elfed had relied on, to his detriment, by working incredibly long hours, purchasing land adjoining his father’s, and paying for the vast majority of expenses including staff wages, husbandry and machinery. The judge cited a number of leading cases including Davies v Davies [2016] EWCA Civ 463, another case where specialist Solicitors from the Hugh James Contested Wills, Trusts and Estates team, acted for the successful party.

Speaking of the judgement, Partner and Head of the Contested Wills, Trusts and Estates department, Roman Kubiak, said today:

No family should have to go through a trial to achieve justice. However, the circumstances were such that Gwen, Stephen and Carys had no other option and I am delighted that we were able to help them to recover the land promised to Elfed by his father and to give effect to Evan’s true wishes as reflected in the 2005 will, made at a time when he was of sound mind, before his capacity sadly started to deteriorate.

This result is a testament to the family’s courage, determination and commitment to see justice prevail and I am grateful to them, our barrister, Alex Troup, the witnesses and HHJ Jarman QC for all playing their part in bringing closure to this affair.

I hope that this result will send a message to others that, in the right circumstances, even in the face of potential obstacles such as a seemingly positive capacity assessment, wills which fail to reflect a person’s true wishes can be overturned and promises can be upheld.

You can read the Hughes decision on BAILLI in English here and Welsh here.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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