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Challenging a will - "It's going to be fun to watch and see how long the meek can keep the earth after they inherit it" (William Hazlitt)

Gill v. RSPCA has been widely publicised in the media. It raises issues of interest and concern not only for individual testators and beneficiaries, but also for charities that might find their position as legatees under a Will challenged by a disappointed beneficiary.

Cases of this kind are currently relatively uncommon, but the legal issues which they raise are complicated. Many people think (mistakenly) that a Will is absolutely sacrosanct, and that it is impossible to overturn the wishes of a testator, no matter how capricious. As Gill shows, this is not (and never has been) the case, but the way in which a court will approach questions like this is not necessarily straightforward.

The Facts

Mr Gill was born in 1917 and was a farmer, in North Yorkshire. He married Mrs Gill in 1947, and they had one child - Dr Christine Gill (the claimant) - in 1950.

In April 1983, Mr and Mrs Gill executed "mirror Wills". Under those Wills, each of the spouses left all of the property to the other spouse absolutely. On the death of both, the property would be held for the RSPCA. Paragraph 5 of each Will expressly stated "I declare that no provision is hereby made for my daughter because I feel that she has been well provided from me over a long period of time". Mr Gill died in 1999 and his wife died seven years later.

These facts may not be complicated, but the surrounding circumstances were argued at length in front of the High Court. The resulting judgment is almost 200 pages long and in it, the factual background is examined and recited at extraordinary length.

The Legal Arguments

The claimant disputed the validity of Mrs Gill's Will on two grounds:

- At the time Mrs Gill executed the Will she did not know and approve of its contents; and
- Mrs Gill executed the Will as a result of coercion or pressure exerted by Mr Gill with the result that the Will was not the result of the free volition of Mrs Gill (i.e., that it had been procured by "actual undue influence").

In the alternative, the claimant argued a claim that she should have the farm transferred to her on the basis that a "proprietary estoppel" had arisen in her favour - that is to say that representations had been made to her that she would inherit the farm and that she acted on those representations to her detriment.

The claimant failed to prove a lack of knowledge and approval of the Will, but she succeeded in her claim that Mrs Gill had executed the Will as a result of undue influence. She was also successful in her alternative argument that a proprietary estoppel had arisen in her favour.

These three heads of claim are all complex areas of law in their own right. Each of them calls for substantial explanation. At a very general level, however, it is useful to look at the findings of fact which were made in the High Court which the judge believed sustained the claims of undue influence and proprietary estoppel.

The Factual Background and Mrs Gill's State of Mind

As noted above, the judgment contains hundreds of paragraphs dealing with witness evidence of Mr and Mrs Gill's personalities which were germane to the result. The following summary cannot do justice the extensive investigations to the fact made by the High Court, but the following points were relevant to the finding of undue influence:

- Mrs Gill was an extraordinarily shy and timid person.

-She suffered from agoraphobia with symptoms of severe anxiety.

- She was unusually dependent on Mr Gill and was concerned not to lose his support.

- Mrs Gill feared Mr Gill's loss of temper and the consequences of such to herself and to his health.

- She deferred to Mr Gill when he maintained a stance on a particular subject.

- After Mr Gill suffered an aortic aneurysm in 1987 in particular, Mrs Gill sought to avoid confronting Mr Gill and tended to do what he wished.

- Mr Gill was "a domineering, determined, stubborn, self opinionated man who was prone to lose his temper quite easily resulting in outbursts of fury. He was a bully and could act disproportionately".

- Mr Gill ran the farming business in the way he wished without any reference to Mrs Gill.

- The cultural background of the couple was such that Mrs Gill would tend to defer to Mr Gill.

- Mrs Gill had a loving relationship with her daughter which had the effect that the daughter would inherit the farm on the death of the couple.

Undue Influence

These were not the only factors, but they were the main factual points used to support the undue influence claim.

The Judge held that the evidence pointed on a balance of probabilities that Mrs Gill's wish was for the claimant to inherit the farm on her death. The following paragraph of the judgment is worth reading in full:

"The court is satisfied that having made his decision, Mr Gill exerted pressure upon Mrs Gill to make the Will which he did which was contrary to her wishes. The pressure was so exercised as to overpower her volition without convincing her judgement. It amounted to coercion. He directed his domineering and bombastic personality to Mrs Gill, utilising her anxiety and fear of his explosive character, and of the possibility of her losing his support upon which she was so dependent, to coerce her into making the Will which she did. Mrs Gill's fear of the risk of Mr Gill losing his temper and of him withdrawing his crucial support from Mrs Gill, combined with her timed and shy personality, her traditional deferment to him and the severe anxiety consequent on the agoraphobia from which she suffered, unduly influenced her to back the Will that she did."

This arguably goes somewhat further then the traditional confines of undue influence. It is not necessarily clear, for example, that actual undue influence was the only conclusion capable of being drawn from the surrounding facts. The judge noted that the analysis does give rise to complicated questions, such as why Mrs Gill did not redraft her Will in the seven years following Mr Gill's death, but nonetheless held that, on the whole, the burden of proof had been discharged by the claimant.

Proprietary Estoppel

The court held that alternative claim of proprietary estoppel would also have been successful. Again, a detailed discussion of the factual and legal issues this gave rise to is beyond the scope of this note, but essentially it was held that representations made to the claimant throughout her lifetime, and considerable work on the farm which she had done on those representations, meant that it would have been inequitable for the farm not to have been transferred to her.

The doctrine of proprietary estoppel is a complex and developing area of law. A claim of proprietary estoppel gives rise to fine legal distinctions and, in particular, the question of the appropriate remedy is not straightforward: in loose terms, the court has to exercise the judgment of Solomon. In Gill, the claimant succeeded in obtaining the maximum possible equitable relief – the transfer of the entire property. The RSPCA had argued that Dr Gill's financial reliance was of a much lower economic value than that.

The Position of the Charity

Much has been made in the press of the RSPCA's insistence in fighting the claim. What is a charity to do in such circumstances?

It is unlikely that a charity would be able simply to relinquish an apparent request in circumstances where it was not at all clear whether or not the claimant would be successful in her application. The principles of law invoked by the claimant were not straightforward ones, and it would be very difficult to argue that the legal issues were so clear cut that it was obvious that the RSPCA had no chance of success.

In any event, charity trustees are always under an obligation to consider their duties to a charity. It is unlikely that they would be able to concede a claim of this magnitude without Charity Commission consent, and availability of such consent depends in the large part on the likely success of the application.

As we have said, claims of this nature are rare, but it would be simplistic to assert that charities should simply give in because a family member has been disinherited. The legal issues are simply not clear and, in the absence of very compelling factual evidence that the Will in question is vulnerable to attack, charity trustees will need to give careful thought as to the likely merits of the claim and their own position as trustees.

If you have any questions on any of the matters contained in this note then please do not hesitate to contact Emma-Jane Weider or Ed Powles.

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