Charities Fight Will Fraud Case
A court has heard that an elderly woman is accused by four charities of fraudulently obtaining an inheritance of £1.6 million from her childhood friend.
Hazel Turner is accused of misleading witnesses to a will into believing that they were witnessing her will – when in fact it was the will of her friend Dorothy Whelen.
The will was prepared in 1999, without the involvement of a solicitor. In 1982 Dorothy had made an earlier will leaving her fortune to four charities; Marie Curie Cancer Care, The Royal Institute of Cancer Care and the Royal National Institutes of Blind and Deaf People.
Hazel and Dorothy had been childhood friends with Dorothy having been a bridesmaid at Hazel’s wedding. Hazel is now 95 years old and has Alzheimer’s. She was not able to give evidence but her son Alan insisted at a court hearing that the 1999 will was valid. He said that he and his mother supported Dorothy when she was widowed, often visiting her in Richmond and acting “just like a family member”.
The charities who missed out under the new will investigated and their suspicions were raised because the witnesses to Dorothy’s 1999 will claimed to have no memory of seeing her or of witnessing her will. The barrister representing the charities, Richard Wilson, said that both witnesses “believed, on the basis of what they were told by Hazel Turner that they were witnessing her will, not that of Dorothy Whelen.”
The legal argument put forward was that Hazel had committed fraud. An additional argument was that the 1999 will was not valid because Dorothy had not understood or approved its contents.
“Although the judge has yet to make a decision in this case it’s still really interesting from a legal point of view. Fraud is very rarely argued because it’s such a difficult allegation to prove. It’s necessary to establish dishonesty and this case will stand or fall on the witnesses’ evidence. The will was made 16 years ago; how reliable the witnesses’ recollections could be after such a long period of time may well be a live issue.
This is an interesting area of law. In the 2014 case of re Boyes Deceased a slightly different argument was run of “fraudulent calumny”. If A poisons the will maker’s mind against B and B is then excluded from the will, then it may be possible to set aside that will. The challenge was unsuccessful in re Boyes because the deceased genuinely believed that the excluded beneficiary was a bad person. Fraudulent calumny only applies if the deceased’s mind was effectively poisoned by someone else. The case of re Edwards in 2007 makes it clear:-
“The question is not whether the court considers that the testator’s testamentary disposition is fair because … a testator may dispose of his estate as he wishes. The question, in the end, is whether in making his disposition, the testator has acted as a free agent” (Lewison J).
A testator (someone who makes a will) is free to do as they wish. In setting aside a will the court has an enormous responsibility and so requires strong evidence to be provided.”
Sarah Young believes that cases like this will be rare:-
“Challenging a will can be hugely expensive and these cases can be difficult to prove. In the case of Dorothy Whelen, the case has gone to court because the charities can afford to pay their solicitors and because the estate is worth nearly £2 million so it’s worth them taking the risk. That said, if fraud or forgery is suspected it may well be worth doing some digging to see if a case can be brought.”
Sarah Young is a Partner with Ridley & Hall solicitors in Huddersfield. She specialises in contentious probate cases and has a particular interest in cases involving missing people and supports the work being done by the charity Missing People.
For further information please contact Sarah Young of Ridley and Hall, Queens House, 35 Market Street, Huddersfield HD1 2HL on her direct dial 01484 558838 or her mobile 07860 165850.