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29 March 2022 | Case Study | Article by Roman Kubiak TEP

Morris v Fuirer and others [2021] EWHC 3566 (Ch)

Morris v Fuirer and others [2021] EWHC 3566 (Ch): charities seek and obtain summary judgment where claimant son written out of inheritance by his mother and raising fanciful claims of with no real prospect of success.

Kevin Morris, the Claimant, was the only child of the deceased, Cynthia Morris. In 2000, 2006 and 2010, Cynthia made three wills. Kevin was the primary beneficiary under the 2000 Will, but not under the later wills. Kevin brought a claim disputing the validity of the 2006 and 2010 wills on the basis that Cynthia did not have testamentary capacity and that one of the beneficiaries had poisoned her mind against him. Kevin claimed undue influence.

Executors sought directions from the Court after Kevin intimated various claims in correspondence but failed to advance them. It took directions from the Court to issue proceedings before he did so. Kevin, as a litigant in person, issued a claim in great detail and the Court commented that it was difficult to follow in parts. Kevin’s dispute focused on the wills made by Cynthia as follows:

  1. 2000 Will: provided a pecuniary legacy of £15,000 to Cynthia’s life-long friend, with the remainder of her estate gifted to Kevin;
  2. 2006 Will: was in similar terms to the 2000 Will apart from the pecuniary legacy left to Cynthia’s life-long friend increased to £55,000; and
  3. 2010 Will: provided for Kevin to receive a pecuniary legacy of £35,000, £70,000 to Cynthia’s life-long friend, £15,000 to Julia Collins (the Fourth Defendant) and the residue of her estate to four charities, being AGE UK, Hope for Children, Become, and the Salvation Army.

After receiving the claim, the four charities issued an application for summary judgment on the grounds that Kevin had no real prospect of success in any of the relief claimed. Alternatively, the charities sought to strike out Kevin’s claims on the basis that his claims were not concise, failed to plead the grounds on which he alleges the wills were invalid, and often incoherent and ill-founded.

Testamentary Capacity

Cynthia’s medical records showed how she informed her GP that she was feeling depressed and that the estrangement from her son Kevin had greatly upset her and led to these feelings. Kevin produced no evidence to rebut the presumption that Cynthia did not have capacity, but stated she lost capacity after a fall in 2003. During this period, the records also showed that Cynthia had made a Lasting Power of Attorney, which required an assessment of her capacity. Solicitors were involved at all points and there were no concerns showed about capacity.

Solicitors were involved in preparing and executing all three wills. Their notes were clear and supported that there were no concerns about Cynthia’s capacity. Kevin’s case amounted to nothing more than a bare assertion, where the evidence provided from independent sources often contradicted his account. The notes from the solicitors showed that Cynthia was clear on why the wills were being changed and that this was caused by the estrangement. The Court held that Kevin’s case on capacity was fanciful and had no realistic prospect of success.

Knowledge and Approval

Kevin claimed that Cynthia did not understand what she was doing, as she was carrying on the plot that had been put in place by her life-long friend. He also claimed that Cynthia had poor eyesight and did not have regard to the things she sought have done. However, no particulars were provided or any facts which he relied upon in support of this assertion. Again, the Court reviewed the notes provided by the solicitors who prepared each will, who were noted to have kept a careful record of their dealings with Cynthia, and there was a clear record to show that she had engaged with them, asking relevant questions, and making changes in the process of finalising each will. This was supported by the solicitors who made each will and the witnesses to the execution of each will.

The Court determined that whatever Cynthia’s intentions may have been in happier times, her intentions clearly changed following the estrangement from Kevin in 2003, and she executed the 2006 and 2010 wills with full knowledge and approval.

Undue Influence and Fraudulent Calumny

Despite submitting a number of heads of claim, Kevin failed to particularise any form of pressure or persuasion that had been exerted over Cynthia. He focused on regular phone calls between Cynthia and her life-long friend but didn’t particularise how it was said she dripped poison to her. During the hearing, Kevin conceded that he did not doubt that Cynthia had wanted to change her will but continued to maintain that her mind had been poisoned.

The burden of proof in a claim for undue influence is high, and would have required Kevin to show that there was no explanation other than the undue influence for Cynthia to have acted as she did when executing the new will. The Court formed the view that the reason fo the changes happened because of the estrangement. Although Cynthia’s life-long friend had benefited from the changes, there was no evidence to support his claim. Kevin could not show that the reason behind her changing her will was caused by the undue influence. The Court found that his attack on the life-long friend was unjustified and dismissed this element of his claim being without merit.

Other Claims

Due to the length of Kevin’s statement of claim, there were also further allegations relating to a promise that Cynthia would leave him everything. It was suggested that this arrangement was agreed after an offer had been made and subsequent negotiation. In return, Kevin claims to have relied on the promise and paid out various things, including helping his mother when she was short on money. The Court felt it was appropriate to deal with this and formed the view that this was a mere statement of her intention at that time, and not a binding obligation capable of giving rise to an estoppel or other enforceable right or interest. It was a discussion out of love and affection. The Court also confirmed that there was the doctrine of mutual wills was not engaged dealing with all allegations so that the 2010 will could be pronounced.

Author bio

Roman Kubiak is a partner and head of the market leading Contested Wills, Trusts and Estates team.

He advises across the whole spectrum of private wealth disputes, with a particular focus on high value, complex and cross-border disputes including: trust disputes, breach of trust claims and applications to remove trustees; will disputes, particularly those with an international element; claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975; and claims for equitable relief under proprietary estoppel, constructive trusts and resulting trusts.

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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