Disputing A Will Based On Undue Influence

Given that a person has the right to pass their estate on to whoever they choose; it could be argued that the contents of a will should be taken as they are provided. However, and even allowing for people to be experiencing a wide range of emotions after the passing of someone close to them, there will be times when there are suspicions about the contents of a will.

It can be difficult to prove but there are clearly times when undue influence has been placed on the person creating a will, and this is an area where many people are keen to contest the findings of a will.

In evaluating the valid nature of a will, the aim of the court is to determine if the will is a genuine representation of the person’s wishes, and not the will of another party. Landmark cases in this area took place in 1920 (Craig v Lamoureux) and 2007 (Edwards v Edwards), with the latter case seeing the court state that the issue at hand is whether an undue influence has been utilised to impact on the will’s execution.  There is a need for the person or parties challenging a will to prove that a level of undue influence has taken place and the burden of proof is a high one.

Courts look for key factors in undue influence cases

The most common criteria utilised by a court in providing undue influence include:

  • The facts are not consistent with any other outcome or hypothesis
  • That undue influence relates to influence which has been developed through fraud or coercion
  • Coercion is deemed to be a pressure that dominates the wishes of the person creating the will, without actually causing them to change their mind
  • The person who created the will has not behaved as a free agent in their decision making

It is rare that direct evidence of undue influence is available, but courts are often willing to make an inference that undue influence has taken place. A case in 2013 (Schrader v Schrader) has helped clarify many of the matters associated with undue influence, and it is likely that this case will be instrumental in other claims succeeding. However, each case will come down to the individual evidence on offer and the relevant quality of the evidence.

If there is not enough evidence to prove that undue influence has taken case, it may be possible for claimants to show that the deceased didn’t know and/or approve of the content of the will. If there are genuine suspicions regarding a will, it may be that claiming on a want of knowledge or approval may be more likely to succeed than a claim based on undue influence. With this style of claim, the burden of proof is placed on to the party who is reliant on the disputed will. They will then have to prove to the court that the will was a genuine reflection of the intentions put forward by the person who created the will.