Alcoholism and the validity of a will
A recent case looks at the relationship between alcoholism and testamentary capacity, and illustrates the reluctance of the Courts to overturn a will based on undue influence – particularly if an experienced solicitor has been involved in drawing up the will.
As is often the case when the validity of a will is being challenged, the claim will be made up of a number of elements. In the recent case of Edkins v Hopkins and others  EWHC 2542 (Ch), the court had to consider the issues of mental capacity, whether the Testator knew and understood the contents of his will when he signed it, and the question of undue influence, relating to the will of Philip Hopkins who was suffering from conditions relating to alcoholism at the time his made the contested will.
Mr Hopkins, a businessman, had made a will in 2006 under which his then partner, Dorothy Ralph received his principal residence and his interest in any pension provision. Also benefitting was Mr Edkins who had worked in Mr Hopkins’ business since 1990, who was to receive half the shares in the business along with Colin Hopkins, one of Mr Hopkins’ 3 sons. The other 2 sons, Alistair and Richard, with whom he had a difficult relationship, were to receive a share of the company profits. Mr Hopkins subsequently married Ms Ralph, and relations with Colin Hopkins deteriorated. He invested in property in St Kitts, but also began drinking heavily and developed serious, alcohol-related health complications. His relationship with his new wife suffered, and he became more reliant on Mr Edkins.
In 2014, Mr Hopkins made a new will which left the bulk of his assets, specifically those related to his business, to Mr Edkins. The residuary of the estate (which was substantial) was divided 75% to Mr Edkins, 25% to his wife and 3 sons. The wife and sons entered a caveat, challenging the validity of the will on the grounds that Mr Hopkins did not have testamentary capacity when he made the 2014 will; that he did not know or understand what he was signing; and finally, that Mr Edkins had exercised undue influence over Mr Hopkins in relation to the 2014 will.
After extensive fact finding, the judge found that the 2014 will should stand.
- One the question of testamentary capacity, while medical evidence including hospital records, noted periods of confusion, the judge was satisfied that Mr Hopkins did have the mental capacity necessary to create a valid will.
- The judge was also satisfied that when the will was executed (which took place in the presence of a solicitor and was witnessed by 2 of the solicitor’s colleagues) Mr Hopkins knew and understood the contents of the will.
- Finally, while he accepted that Mr Hopkins was in a vulnerable and at times confused state of mind due to his alcoholism, and that Mr Edkins was in a position where he could have exerted influence over Mr Hopkins, and did have a degree of control over Mr Hopkins, it was ‘a step too far’ to find that Mr Edkins’ control took away Mr Hopkins free will in a way that amounted to undue influence.
The involvement of an experienced solicitor
What seems to have been a prominent feature of the judge’s decision making was the fact that an experienced solicitor was involved in the drafting and execution of Mr Hopkins’ 2014 will. She had made lengthy attendance notes and gave evidence to the effect that although she appreciated that he was unwell at the time she took instructions relating to the will, she was comfortable that he understood what he was doing – that he knew the extent of his property, and the effect of the will he was asking to have drawn up. This also assisted Mr Edkins on the question of whether Mr Hopkins knew and approved the contents of his will when the time came for the will to be executed. The solicitor read through the will to Mr Hopkins, and then passed it to him to read, after which he confirmed that the will was fine. She also made an attendance note of the visit.
Control was given and not taken
The main issue relating to the question of undue influence was the extent of the control Mr Edkins had over Mr Hopkins life, increasingly so as his health deteriorated. However, the judge felt it was important to put this in the context of the long term relationship Mr Hopkins and Mr Edkins had enjoyed, and the significant levels of trust that Mr Hopkins had placed in Mr Edkins. Even Mrs Hopkins, the estranged wife, agreed with this. The judge found that Mr Edkins had been reticent in his evidence about the extent of control he had over Mr Hopkins affairs. However, even allowing for this and for the fact that Mr Hopkins was more mentally and physically vulnerable, it was not appropriate to make the small jump from that finding to a finding that Mr Edkins had exercised undue influence over Mr Hopkins. The judge noted that the 2014 will really seemed to reflect Mr Hopkins’ continued desire, already evident in the 2006 will that his business should keep going. Due to issues in relation to his sons, Mr Edkins “looked the best prospect of fulfilling that wish.”.
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