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The England and Wales High Court has found in favour of Timothy Mundil-Williams, that a will executed by his late father John Williams in 2014 was invalid because the testator lacked knowledge and approval of its contents.
The deceased was a Welsh farmer who died in 2017, leaving behind four sons and the family farm, worth £700,000 of the estate’s total value of £983,000. Its dispersal among the sons was the key focus of the estate dispute.
The deceased’s eldest son, Richard, had been a partner in the farming business since 1979, and had taken over the practical running of it by the time John Williams made his last will in 2014.
Mr Williams’s instructions for his will were given by the testator in person at the offices of the family’s solicitors in Newport. He gave them verbally to the secretary of the head of the firm’s wills and probate department, who took handwritten notes during the meeting and produced a typed file note afterwards, as well as a standard form containing details of the testator, the intended beneficiaries and the estate.
These notes were then given to a paralegal at the firm to be drafted into the will.
However, the instructions recorded by the paralegal, and eventually carried over by her into the draft will, differed significantly from the instructions given to the secretary.
The instructions given by John Williams to the secretary meant Richard would have the agricultural tenancy and a 62.5 percent share of the reversion. However, the instructions as recorded by the paralegal meant that Richard would inherit the farm outright, while the other brothers would receive only 12.5 percent of the residuary estate, which did not include the farm.
The paralegal who drafted the will sent it to the testator for checking but no errors were flagged. He accordingly executed the will at the law firm’s offices, with the paralegal and the secretary acting as witnesses.
After Mr Williams’s death, his son Timothy challenged the will, drawing attention to the fact that the will as drafted and executed did not reflect his father’s wishes as expressed both to his family and in his instructions to the solicitors, and asked the court to void the will on grounds of lack of knowledge and intent.
Keyser HHJ in the England and Wales High Court agreed. The evidence showed that John Williams did not appreciate that, under the will, the family farm was not part of the residuary estate and would go entirely to Timothy’s brother Richard and that there was no evidence that anything occurred between the giving of the instructions and the finalising of the will to cause the testator to change his mind in any significant way, and he had not contacted the solicitors’ firm to change his instructions during that time.
Keyser decided to use the court’s power to exclude some words from the 2014 will and admit that amended version to probate, as confirmed by the UK Supreme Court’s ruling in Marley v Rawlings (2014 UKSC 2). Although in this case, that could not be done in a way that would deliver the testator’s intentions exactly, it was ‘unlikely to represent a major problem’ and ‘falls on the right side of the line’, said Keyser (Mundil-Williams v Williams, 2021 EWHC 586 Ch).