A handwritten will can cause problems if it's not clear what the intention of the will is.

Handwritten will valid despite poor English

In many cases, people write their own wills, which can lead to problems down the line. In Vucicevic & Another v Aleksic & Others [2017] EWHC 255 (Ch), the Court looked at a handwritten will to establish its true intentions given imperfect written English and other problems including undated deletions and amendments, and no attestation clause.

In this case, it wasn’t so much a dispute between beneficiaries and potential beneficiaries which led to the legal action. The real problems arose from the need to decipher the intention of the will and how it should be interpreted. The Testator was born in Montenegro but came to Britain just after World War 2, and took British citizenship, settling in Wales. By the time he died, in 2014, he owned 2 houses in the UK, and a small property development in Montenegro, along with other investments, and left an estate worth £1,863,228.61 for probate purposes.

His ‘holographic’ handwritten will raised a number of problems. Underlying all the issues was a lack of clarity, partly arising from the Testator’s imperfect written English, but also because he was not specific enough in some of his bequests. The will included amendments and deletions that were undated. Finally, the will did not include an ‘attestation clause’.

Holographic wills

A holographic will is a handwritten will prepared by the Testator. Will writing ‘kits’ where people ‘fill in the blanks’ do not create a holographic will – the will must be entirely written by the Testator is his or her own hand. A holographic will is valid in the UK provided it has been properly witnessed. In this case, then, the fact that the will was handwritten was not a problem in itself.

Attestation Clause

The ‘attestation clause’ in a will is a clause that confirms that the legal requirements of the will have been met. In this handwritten will, there was no attestation clause – probably because the testator didn’t realise he should have one. The will did appear to be properly executed, and this issue was dealt with by obtaining affidavits of execution – statements from the executors to confirm that the will have been properly executed.

Undated amendments and deletions

The Testator had made a bequest to “Alex Dubljevic in Cardiff (Barrister)” who had helped him when he was undergoing treatment for cancer. The amount he was to have received had been deleted, and then at a later (unknown) date, “£2.000. Two” had been added to the will. Despite specialist forensic evidence, the Court could not be satisfied that the amendment was made before the will had been witnessed. As a result, the court had to ignore this and try and work out what the original bequest was. This worked in Mr Dubljevic’s favour as he ended up with £8,000 – even though this may not have been the Testator’s final intention.

Unclear beneficiaries and intentions

A couple of the beneficiaries under the will were unclear. The Testator left money to “Brit. Cancer Research”, and a more substantial legacy of property to the “Serbian Orthodox Church”. As far as the gift to the church was concerned, it was not clear whether it was a gift to the church itself, or given to the church ‘on trust’ for those in need in Kosovo. The court resolved both these issues with respect to legal principles. The legacy to a cancer charity ended up split between a number of UK cancer charities.

The gift to the church was partly resolved as the different branches of the Serbian Orthodox Church themselves came to an agreement that it should be the London branch that benefited. The judge decided then that the will had been clear enough to create a trust to be administered by the Serbian Orthodox Church for the benefit of those in need (particularly children) in Kosovo.

As experts in will disputes, we would always encourage everyone to make sure they have a valid will, properly drawn up by a reputable firm of solicitors. Although this case was not a ‘dispute’ as such, it’s a useful decision looking at the process for examining a handwritten will where the English is poor, and the wording unclear. Had there been real dispute among the beneficiaries or potential beneficiaries, the issues would have been compounded by these problems.