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Handwritten, smudged and confusing – but still a Will worthy of interpretation

The complex legal difficulties that can be caused by a homemade, handwritten Will have been graphically illustrated by a fascinating case recently detangled in the High Court.

Friends, charities, church authorities and a forensic document examiner were all used in the complicated process of interpreting and determining exactly what 91-year-old Mr Veljko Aleksic’s wishes actually were.

Mr Aleksic, originally from Montenegro in the Balkans, died in 2014. Although he’d lived in the UK for decades, and become a British citizen, he wasn’t grammatically fluent in English.

‘Bad English can still make a good Will’

The Will he’d written two years earlier – dated simply ‘2012’ – had spelling mistakes, smudges, changes made in two ballpoint pens, grammatical and punctuation errors and large sections of unclear wording.

But as Judge Paul Matthews pointed out: “Bad English can still make a good Will as long as the testator’s meaning can be understood.”

Background

Mr Aleksic moved to England shortly after World War II. When he died he left an estate of around £2.75 million including houses in Cardiff, north London and Montenegro as well as a portfolio of bonds and shares.

One of seven children, he had no children of his own and was survived by two siblings and a number of nieces and nephews.

Initial issues

The first problems associated with his handwritten Will were remedied in traditional ways with relative ease:

  • Before the hearing, one of the witnesses to Mr Aleksic’s Will made an affidavit of due execution to confirm it had been validly executed;
  • The question of a possible lack of testamentary capacity was resolved by a medical report from Mr Aleksic’s GP which indicated that in 2012 he appeared to have capacity;
  • The question of a legacy of £10,000 to ‘Brit. Cancer Research’ (an organisation which doesn’t exist) was resolved by sharing it between a number of cancer research charities using something called The Royal Sign Manual which applies when a Will contains a gift to charity but the identity of the charity isn’t clear.

Further complications

But the administrators decided to go to court for guidance when trying to ascertain Mr Aleksic’s intentions when it came to other more complex issues and Judge Matthews certainly had his work cut out as these unfolded.

Problem one: The Will included a legacy to a barrister in Cardiff, an old friend of Mr Aleksic’s, but the amount, which looked like it had been either £8,000 or £80,000 (a forensic document examiner was unable to tell which) had been crossed out and replaced by a telephone number and ‘£2,000. Two’ written in a different pen after the Will had been signed.

Judge Matthews’ decision: After poring over photographs of the crossed out entry under infra-red light to determine the most likely sum of the initial legacy, he decided that Mr Aleksic had made a valid gift to his barrister friend of £8,000.

Problem two: In relation to his three properties, Mr Aleksic outlined in his Will what he wanted, part of which read: “All to Serbian Orthodox Church. Vladika Amfilohije to be in charge. Benefit from it to go to Kosovo, for the people in. Need. Especially children. And all the money. Which is left (after Custom & Inland Revenue).”

Judge Matthew’s decision: After consulting the extensive legal literature on irregular Wills and Montenegrin law as well as other issues including which branch of the church Mr Aleksic meant (London or Serbia) and whether the money was an absolute gift or to be held on trust, he decided that the Serbian Orthodox Church in London should benefit from the bulk of his estate.

Implications

The case shows just how far the court will go, using evidence to establish intention, to ascertain a testator’s wishes and ensure an interpretation of the Will which will allow those wishes to be honoured.

But it also serves as a reminder of how taking proper legal advice at the time of making the Will could have easily prevented the problems that arose in this case.

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