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Supreme Court rules on wills error

The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled on an unusual case involving parallel wills signed in error.

Marley v Rawlings and Another  concerned a couple who drafted identical wills in 1999. Each will left the entire estate to the other spouse. If that spouse had already died, the estate would instead go to a family friend, Terry Marley, rather than to their two sons.

The wife died four years later, and her husband followed in 2006. It was only at that point that an unfortunate mistake came to light: their solicitor had given the husband and wife the wrong wills to sign. On the basis of this error, the couple’s sons challenged the validity of the will which their father had signed. If the will was invalid their father had technically died intestate and the brothers would therefore inherit the estate under the rules of intestacy.

The couple’s estate was valued at £70,000.

Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal found in favour of the sons. The Court of Appeal said Mr Rawlings had believed he was signing a different will and the court did not have the power to rectify the situation.

But when the case proceeded to the Supreme Court, the Justices took a different view. Delivering the lead judgement, Lord Neuberger said:

“When interpreting a contract, the court is concerned to find the intention of the party or parties, and it does this by identifying the meaning of the relevant words, (a) in the light of (i) the natural and ordinary meaning of those words, (ii) the overall purpose of the document, (iii) any other provisions of the document, (iv) the facts known or assumed by the parties at the time that the document was executed, and (v) common sense, but (b) ignoring subjective evidence of any party’s intentions……. When it comes to interpreting wills, it seems to me that the approach should be the same.”

In the Supreme Court judgement, Lord Neuberger considered section 20 of the Administration of Justice Act 1982, which considers the issue of rectifying wills. This states that:

“If a court is satisfied that a will is so expressed that it fails to carry out the testator’s intentions, in consequence—

(a)of a clerical error; or

(b)of a failure to understand his instructions,

it may order that the will shall be rectified so as to carry out his intentions.”

However, section 9 of the Wills Act 1837 declares that:

“No will shall be valid unless—

(a)it is in writing, and signed by the testator, or by some other person in his presence and by his direction; and

(b)it appears that the testator intended by his signature to give effect to the will; and

(c)the signature is made or acknowledged by the testator in the presence of two or more witnesses present at the same time.”

On the face of it, the will in question did not qualify as a valid one under the Wills Act. However, Lord Neuberger concluded:

“While it is clear, even on a cursory reading of the Will, that something has gone seriously wrong, it is unchallengeable that Mr Rawlings signed it, and that he did so, both on the face of the document, and as a matter of fact, with the intention of it being his last will and testament. Thus, whatever else may be said about the document, it is, on its face (and was in fact according to the evidence), unambiguously intended to be a formal will, and it was, on its face (and was in fact according to the evidence), signed by Mr Rawlings, in the presence of two witnesses, on the basis that it was indeed his will.”

He therefore declared that the will should be rectified due to the clerical error originally made when the husband and wife were given the wrong wills to sign. The parts of the will originally signed by Mrs Rawlings but meant for Mr Rawlings were added to the will in contention, in place of the parts originally meant for his wife.

Mr Marley therefore inherited the couple’s estate.

This case is a good demonstration of the emphasis placed on fairness within our legal system, alongside the letter of the law. Whatever the couple’s relationship with their sons might or might not have been – and it was obviously an unusual one – it was clearly right that the wishes of the couple be respected and that Mr Marley not be deprived of the inheritance meant for him.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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