Disputing a will on the basis of undue influence

Another day, another will dispute in the headlines. The case concerns the estate of the late Julie Harrison whose daughter, Candice Harrison, is reported to have been successful in an undue claim against her cousin, Jonathan Greenwood.

The court were referred to a transcript of video footage taken from secret cameras installed by Ms Harrison recording Mr Greenwood’s interactions with her late mother who suffered from dementia. The judge accepted that Mr Greenwood “embarked on a campaign of influence, which amounted to undue influence”.

An undue influence claim in the context of a will comes about when it is suspected that the deceased has done something that they might not have done had it not been for the influence of another. This is invariably the main beneficiary under the deceased’s current will or at least someone who is set to benefit considerably more than they were to benefit under a previous will or intestacy.

In these cases, the deceased’s own judgement has been abandoned having succumbed to the manipulative behaviour of another. In order to succeed, the claimant must be able to show that the deceased was coerced into making a will, which in effect means that the person making the will was influenced to the extent that their free will was completely oppressed.

Direct evidence of undue influence is unusual, given that the very nature of the act means that it happens behind closed doors hence these claims not always straightforward and successful cases of undue influence (that are reported) are few and far between. However, in the Harrison case the transcript of the video footage would have enabled the court a better insight into the relationship between Julie Harrison and Jonathan Greenwood.

The type of scenario commonly seen in these types of cases is where one child benefits over other children and the decision is not supported by what were understood to be the deceased wishes prior to death. Another possible warning sign is where the primary care giver, particularly of a vulnerable or elderly individual, benefits greatly from a will. In these types of cases that person has often demonstrated a level of control over the deceased affairs in their lifetime. They might for example have made the appointment with a solicitor or will writer for the deceased to make a will and given initial instructions on their behalf.

In the absence of sufficient evidence to prove undue influence in the context of a will, prospective claimants may wish to consider whether there could be causes for the Court to state that the deceased did not know and approve the will contents. Provided there are suspicious circumstances about how the will came to be made, a claim for want of knowledge and approval may have higher prospects for success than a claim for undue influence.

By Katherine Pymont, Kingsley Napley

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