Farmer did have the capacity to change his Will after all – Court of Appeal overturns High Court decision
A long running inheritance dispute has taken another turn after the Court of Appeal ruled that a farmer, who’d had his Will drawn up by a solicitor and passed a mental capacity assessment by a GP, was indeed perfectly competent to change his final wishes.
The High Court had previously decided that 84-year-old Evan Hughes didn’t have the mental capacity to make a new and valid Will in 2016. This was even though the Will-drafting solicitor, the GP who assessed him at the time and another medical expert, all said he did.
As a result, Mr Hughes’ previous 2005 Will stood firm determining that a parcel of farmland would go, as promised, to his deceased son Elfed’s estate, for Elfed’s many years of hard work on the family farm.
This important case – and the Court of Appeal’s conclusion that the High Court judge’s findings ‘were not open to him on the evidence’ – sheds some clear legal light on how testamentary capacity is to be determined going forward.
What happened in this farming dispute?
Evan Hughes – who had substantial assets including property, farmland and shares in a building company – made his final Will in March 2016, not long after one of his son’s, Elfed, took his own life.
He had always promised Elfed that an area of farmland known as Yr Efail would be his when he died. Elfed had relied on this, to his detriment, by working long hours on both his and his father’s acreage, buying land adjoining his father’s and covering most of the expenses.
The main change to Evan’s 2016 Will was to leave Yr Efail to another son, Gareth, and the rest of the farmland to Elfed’s widow, Gwen.
This final Will was contested by Gwen, Elfed’s sister, Carys, and Elfed’s eldest son, Stephen.
Did Evan have the capacity to make changes to his Will?
This was the point of difference between the High Court and the Court of Appeal.
Both courts were told that the solicitor dealing with the new 2016 Will – under which Gareth would inherit most of the farmland – arranged for a capacity assessment to be carried out before it was drawn up.
This was in line with what’s known as the ‘Golden Rule’ which means that when an elderly or seriously ill person wishes to make a new Will, their solicitor should seek the opinion of a medical expert to determine their mental capacity to do so.
Following a meeting with Mr Hughes, who was said to be suffering from moderate dementia, the GP confirmed he had no concerns about his mental capacity to change his Will and was happy to act as a witness.
Why did the Court of Appeal take a different view from the High Court?
The Court of Appeal held that the High Court judge gave insufficient weight to the evidence of the GP who assessed Mr Hughes at the time he made the Will and no weight at all to the ‘meticulous’ solicitor who took instructions and drafted the Will.
This meant, it said, that the High Court judge’s decision that Mr Hughes did not have capacity was not an option on the evidence presented to him.
Is this particular inheritance battle now over?
Probably not. The time, costs and emotional stress of this case are set to continue for the family as the Court of Appeal has asked the High Court to assess the claim by Elfed’s widow, Gwen, for proprietary estoppel over the farmland.
Proprietary estoppel is a legal remedy to ensure a promise is kept. Common in farming inheritance disputes, click here to read what else we’ve written about it recently.
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The number of people disputing a loved one’s Will is rising fast and farming family disputes are no exception, although the majority tend to be settled out of court.
If you would like to contest or defend a Will, the help of a specialist lawyer is vital as every case needs to be looked at on an individual basis. Time limits also apply.
For help and advice, please contact Wards Solicitors’ Contentious Trusts and Probate Team.
Our lawyers are members of the Association of Contentious Trusts and Probate Specialists (ACTAPS), the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP), Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE) and the Law Society’s Probate Panel. All demand a high level of expertise and up to date knowledge from their members.
Wards Solicitors’ team is praised by the Legal 500 Guide for 2022 for its broad contentious trusts and probate practice with a particular emphasis on Inheritance Act and Court of Protection matters.
Head of the team, Elizabeth Fry, is highlighted as a key lawyer specialising in high value ad multi-jurisdictional matters.