A Family Affair

Contested probates typically involve just one or two legal issues but a recent case breaks that mould.

The case complex background and tested a range of legal principles around purported forgery, suicide, fraud, family squabbles and an enduring power of attorney.

Wrangle v Brunt & anor [2020] EWHC 1784 was a contested probate which followed the tragic death in 2008 of the deceased (Dean) at just 35 years of age.

A claim was brought against his estate by the elderly husband of Dean’s aunt who died in 2010. The claim was defended by Dean’s 82-year-old mother (M) and his older brother.

M had been granted letters of administration on the basis that Dean died intestate but the claimant sought an order revoking the grant after two purported wills were found years later. These were in duplicate dated 1999, and executed one after the other in exactly the same form.

Dean’s family background was not easy and his father did not figure in his life, but he enjoyed a close relationship with his late grandfather who left Dean, who was just 17 when he died, a share of his estate valued at around £2m. This then passed under the intestacy rules to M who subsequently transferred it to Dean’s older brother (the other defendant).

Convincing evidence

Dean’s mother and brother defended the claim saying their purported wills were forgeries and were created years after Dean’s death. They also argued the wills were invalid for want of due execution and want of knowledge and approval.

The evidential burden was on those claiming it was a forgery given the circumstances of the case and, said Judge Paul Teverson, convincing evidence was needed to defeat the forgery allegation.

A particular factor relied on by the defendants was that Dean’s attorney (appointed under an EPA but now also deceased) – who signed the will on his behalf – was a man of bad character and had been imprisoned for fraud.

However, the judge said this was part of the background circumstances but did not in itself require the court to reject the claim. He considered the will in detail and decided that it was not possible to determine from the contents of the will alone whether it was forged.

A complicating factor was that, for certain reasons that remained unclear, the will had not been produced following Dean's death. But he found the claimant to be a truthful witness who genuinely believes Dean made a will for various reasons. Particularly, the judge accepted the claimant's evidence that his late wife (Dean’s aunt) had mentioned to him that Dean had made a will.

Even taking into account the attorney’s bad character, the potential for forgery arising out of him signing on Dean’s behalf – and even that the execution of duplicate wills has sometimes been seen as an indicator of fraud - the contents of the will did not arise suspicion. He concluded that the wills were not a forgery.

On the issue of valid execution of the will, the judge found on the evidence that Dean understood and approved what was in the will when it was signed on his behalf by the attorney.

He therefore revoked the grant and directed that the will executed in duplicate be pronounced for.

Written by Nicola Laver, a non-practicing solicitor and a qualified journalist. She is also editor of Solicitors Journal.


Posted on 22.07.20