In Nutt v Nutt the court looked at fairness in a will dispute

The Fairness of Will Disputes: Nutt v. Nutt [2018] EWHC 851 (CH)

The recent case of Nutt v Nutt, an elderly lady left her house to one of her children and not the others. The case shows the factors that the courts use to resolve will disputes.

The Facts of Nutt v Nutt

Lily Rose Nutt passed away in 2013; she was a widow. Mrs Nutt had made a will in 2005, and another in 2010. Mrs Nutt had three children: Christopher, Vivienne, and Colin. The 2005 will divided the estate equally between the three siblings. The 2010 will left Mrs Nutt’s house to Colin alone; the house was the largest asset in the estate and was worth approximately £350,000. When a will dispute was raised by the other siblings, the judge, Master Clark, had the task of deciding whether or not the will that was made in 2010 was valid.

Testamentary Capacity

One of the grounds the claimants relied upon to challenge the will in Nutt v Nutt was lack of testamentary capacity. In Banks v Goodfellow (1869-70) LR 5 QB 5494, the test to decide whether an individual has the testamentary capacity to make a will was set out:

  • The testator of the will must know the nature of the document they are preparing- that it is a will
  • The testator must have knowledge of their estate and an idea of their wealth and their assets
  • The testator must have an idea of who their dependants are and who might be expecting to inherit from their will

Mrs Nutt was diagnosed with dementia in 2011. The judge decided that this was enough to cast doubt on her capacity to make a valid will. The claimants had asserted that in 2010 when the will was made, the testator was already suffering from dementia and that she could “barely write her own name”. Her correspondence from that time indicated otherwise. The judge accepted that although she developed dementia in 2011, she did in fact have testamentary capacity when she made her will in the previous year, so the claim failed on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity.

Knowledge and Approval

The claimants also raised a claim on the grounds of lack of knowledge and approval, in other words, that the will was invalid because the testator did not know or approve of its contents. Colin gave evidence that his mother had insisted on leaving him the house in the 2010 will and called upon third party witnesses to support the view that Mrs Nutt had been adamant that the bequest was her intention. The judge accepted this evidence and rejected the claim of lack of knowledge and approval because the evidence suggested that she not only knew about the new will, but also was intent on making it.

Undue Influence in Nutt v Nutt

In Re Edwards [2007] EWHC 1119 (Ch), the burden of proof in undue influence cases was set out:

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.”

The claimants alleged that Mrs Nutt’s will had been made under the coercion of Collin and was therefore invalid. They argued that Collin Nutt was dominant and domineering. Their evidence was that Collin had told Mrs Nutt to put on a different pair of shoes and coat so she didn’t get cold, and that he had been “holding court” at both Mrs Nutt and her late husband’s wakes. However, as evidence that Collin had behaved in a dominant way, this did not convince the judge.

The claimants also said that Collin had taken money from his mother for making repairs to her house. The judge rejected this evidence and said that Collin had not been paid for the repairs other than cash for the cost of materials. The judge said there was no evidence to support the claims that Collin controlled Mrs Nutt financially. The judge accepted Collin’s evidence that he was not involved in the 2010 will and therefore there was no undue influence.

Conclusions of the court in Nutt 

Master Clark stated in the judgement,

“it is not my task to decide whether the 2010 will was justified or fair; I am only required to decide if it is valid. For the reasons set out above I find that it is valid, and that the claim therefore fails.”

This case serves as a reminder that in will disputes, the court ultimately has to decide whether a will is valid based on legal principles such as capacity and undue influence: it is not for the judge to decide whether or not the provisions in a will are morally fair on the beneficiaries.

This case illustrates an important aspect of many will disputes. Just because a will is not fair does not mean it is invalid. In some cases, it may be more appropriate to bring a claim for reasonable provision under the Inheritance Act, but this can be a difficult claim to bring for an adult child who is financially independent.

For expert advice on your situation, get in touch with Will Claim solicitors. We are expert will dispute lawyers and will be able to explain how the law may support your claim. We can offer a free claim assessment and will usually be able to act on a ‘no win no fee’ basis.