Undue influence is hard to prove - read out blog

5 Things to Know About Undue Influence

What is Undue Influence?

 Undue influence is a ground upon which to challenge a will, calling into question the validity of the will itself. Claims for undue influence are made when someone suspects that the testator (the person who made the will) was under the influence of another person at the time the will was made. If a court finds that the will was made, either under coercion, or in circumstances where a vulnerable person was taken advantage of, the will might be declared invalid.

In Edwards v Edwards [2007] WTLR 1387, Mr Justice Lewison stated that when determining whether or not a claim of undue influence should succeed,

The question, in the end, is whether in making his dispositions, the testator has acted as a free agent.

A will is therefore supposed to be an expression of the wishes of the testator, not those of someone else.

If you are thinking about challenging a will because you think the testator was unduly influenced by someone else, here a 5 key things you should know.

  1. The high burden of proof

The high burden of proof is an important consideration to take into account when challenging a will based on undue influence. It is the responsibility of the claimant to prove to the court that the testator was the subject of undue influence. In the case of Edwards v Edwards [2007] WTLR 1387, Mr Justice Lewison set out an approach for determining whether undue influence has taken place. He stated,

The burden of proving it lies on the person who asserts it. It is not enough to prove that the facts are consistent with the hypothesis of undue influence. What must be shown is that the facts are inconsistent with any other hypothesis.

Therefore, in order to prove undue influence, the claimant must be able to show that there is no reasonable explanation for the testator’s decisions in the will, other than that they were unduly influenced by another person. The judge also described this as a high burden: it is difficult to prove that undue influence is the only possible explanation for a given set of facts. 

  1. The difficulty of gathering evidence

Given the high standard of proof required to succeed in a claim of undue influence, you will need to gather strong evidence that the testator was vulnerable to undue influence when the will was written. It is always difficult, because the best person to give evidence about what was going on when the will was written is dead, but other helpful evidence can include:

  • Letters, emails or other communications that indicate the testator’s relationship with the alleged influencer, or their state of mind at the time the will was made.
  • Medical evidence: this might be relevant if the testator had some medical condition that may have made them vulnerable to coercion.
  • Witness statements from people who knew the testator, to support an undue influence claim.
  1. The possibility of family strain

Undue influence claims often involve family members of the deceased. For obvious reasons, accusing a relative of coercing another family member into leaving them an inheritance can have negative consequences for family relationships. It is important to consider these potential consequences of going to court against a family member for an undue influence claim. Mediation is a potential option to alleviate some of this family pressure.

  1. The existence of third party legal advice

In the recent case of Brindley v Brindley [2018] EWHC 157 (Ch), the court refused to allow a claim for undue influence when an elderly woman made her son a joint tenant of her property, effectively leaving the house to him, and not her other son. The mother had sought legal advice from a solicitor on her decision, and the solicitor gave evidence that the mother had chosen of her own free will to leave the house to her son, in full awareness of the consequences of that decision.

If the testator made it clear to others at the time the will was made that their intentions were their own, this will undermine an undue influence claim: undue influence claims succeed if the testator was under the influence of another when a decision was made. The question of whether or not the decision itself was unfair is irrelevant.

  1. Too many grounds for a Will Dispute

In the case of Wharton v Bancroft (2011) EWHC (Ch) 3250, a deceased man’s daughters challenged the validity of his will due to undue influence. However, the daughters also claimed other grounds for disputing the will: want of knowledge and approval and lack of capacity. They called forward nearly 40 witnesses and when they lost the case, they were ordered to pay their own legal costs, as well as the costs of the other party, close to £1 million in total.

Challenging a will is an emotional process, and it is important to keep clear sight of the reasons why the will should be made invalid, as well as to ensure that you present a strong and focussed case that meets the high standard of proof. Introducing too many grounds for the dispute might undermine the case, as well as potentially inflating the legal costs of an unsuccessful dispute.

As specialist will dispute solicitors, we can advise you on the strength of your undue influence claim based on the evidence you have. We can also advise on any additional evidence that would be helpful to your case, and we can explain the process before you go ahead. We can usually handle cases on a no win no fee basis, making legal fees easier to manage. Call us today on 020 3322 5103, or complete our free online claim assessment request.