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15th October 2020

Examining the life of the deceased helps the Court interpret an ambiguous will

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Peter Wales had no children so left almost his whole estate to “such all of my nephew’s and niece’s children”. The Court concluded that this meant both his relatives by blood and by marriage.

Peter was married to Wendy for forty-six years until she passed away. During their marriage, they made three sets of mirror wills. Each left their estate to the surviving spouse or, if they were the second to die, to the nieces and nephews on both sides of the family. Shortly after Wendy’s death, Peter made a new will. His new will changed the beneficiary to his great nieces and nephews but failed to specify exactly which relatives were included.

Peter’s nieces and nephews by blood had seven children. His nieces and nephews by affinity had a further eight, which would effectively halve the inheritance his blood relatives would receive. Although the term ‘nieces and nephews’ is usually narrowly interpreted to mean blood relatives only, in this case the Court examined Peter’s life to establish his intention.

The Court’s focussed on Peter’s long marriage to Wendy. The previous wills showed a clear and consistent intention to share the couple’s estate with members of both families. Peter had inherited all of Wendy’s estate and continued to have a relationship with Wendy’s family after her death. The parties tried to introduce evidence of Peter’s actions in the years after making his final will but the Court would only consider evidence from prior to the making of the will.

The blood relatives were unable to prove Peter intended to fundamentally alter the approach to legacies he and Wendy had adopted during their marriage. Instead, the Court placed weight on the witness statement of one of Wendy’s nephews. The nephew recalled Wendy telling him that she and Peter felt the nieces and nephews could now “look after themselves” and so preferred that the great nephews and nieces’ benefit.

The judgement demonstrates the approaches the Court will and won’t entertain when seeking to overcome ambiguity in a will. The Court did not pull its punches when criticising the will drafter: It noted that the drafter took telephone instructions only, failed to properly enquire about Peter’s family tree or will history and described the will as “badly drafted”.

For more information on any of the items raised in this article please contact Tiffany Benson by clicking here.

Case Citation: Wales v Dixon & Ors [2020] EWHC 1979 (Ch)