Half-sister fails in testamentary capacity challenge in EWHC

Thursday, 23 May 2024
A will made by 74-year-old Philip Price three weeks before his death in 2019 has survived a challenge brought in the England and Wales High Court (EWHC) by a woman who only discovered after his death that she was his close relative.
Image of last will and testament document

Price owned a house and 74 acres of pasture in Powys, Wales, where he lived all his life and kept various horses. His net estate at his death in January 2019 was valued at GBP808,000.

By the time he made his will, in December 2018, he had several severe illnesses and had recently been admitted to hospital with pneumonia and suspected sepsis for which he was prescribed opioids. While in the hospital he had episodes of acute serious delirium, continuing on and off until early January when he was discharged home. However, on 14 December he executed a handwritten will prepared by Sian Morris, a senior solicitor with many years of probate experience. The will left Price's estate to Vanessa Davies, who had been a close friend for 25 years and with whom he shared a bungalow. It appointed one of Price's cousins to be an executor and trustee.

The will was challenged by Barbara Watts, who at some time shortly after Price's death had discovered that she was his half-sister (the judgment does not give details). She would stand to inherit his estate if his will were found to be invalid. She alleged that he did not have testamentary capacity at the time of executing the will, or did not know or approve of its contents. Vanessa Davies accordingly had to go to court to prove the will.

There was no indication in Price's medical notes that the delirium he experienced continued between the recorded episodes or was present at the time he signed his will, so both sides instructed psychiatrists to give medical evidence. Barbara Watts' expert accepted there was no medical evidence of continuing delirium after the episode on 6 December but believed it possible that it was present on 14 December and could have undermined testamentary capacity. Vanessa Davies' medical expert opined that it was possible that delirium was continuing at the time of making the will but that was the less likely scenario. Even if delirium was present, it was more likely than not that this was mild and it is unlikely that this would have undermined testamentary capacity.

This was inconclusive and other witnesses' testimony was needed. One of these was the solicitor, Sian Morris. She had made an attendance note showing that Price was initially undecided about the estate residue, a fact that Barbara Watts adduced as evidence of want of knowledge and approval. Morris gave evidence that she had used a standard clause in the will and went over it two or three times with Price and gave it to him to read before he signed it. She was asked in cross-examination why she had not obtained medical confirmation of capacity under the 'golden rule' and she replied that she did not feel that his capacity was in any way compromised. Other witnesses were friends who knew him well, and were still meeting him frequently until very shortly before he died, and Vanessa Davies herself. They gave 'clear and straightforward evidence of capacity', said Jarman HHJ, giving judgment.

'There is no dispute that at the time of making the will, Philip Price was very weak and very frail', commented Jarman. However, he said, the evidence given by Vanessa Davies and her witnesses was consistent: that he remained mentally very sharp. This was also consistent with Jarman's finding that the information as to his assets and potential beneficiaries in Sian Morris' written attendance note came from Price, and was broadly accurate. Accordingly, it was clearly shown that he had testamentary capacity, which went 'a long way in dealing also with the question of whether he knew and approved of the contents of his will, which was not complex and was written in clear capital letters on one page. Its terms were not complex.

The will was duly admitted to probate and Barbara Watts' objection dismissed (Davies v Watts, 2024 EWHC 1177 Ch).

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