Landmark Decision by the Supreme Court Over Wrongly Signed Wills
The Supreme Court ruled on 22nd January that a mix up over signatures on Wills prepared by a couple should not be allowed to disinherit their intended heir.
Maureen and Alfred Rawlings had wills drafted for them in 1999 by which they intended to leave their entire estate to Terry Marley (who was not a blood relative). The two accidentally signed each others Wills – possibly due to negligence on the part of the solicitor.
After Alfred Rawlings’ death his two sons argued that their father’s Will was invalid because it had been signed by the wrong person. In 2012 the Court of Appeal upheld the decision of the High Court and said that it was not in its power to change the Will, even though there was no doubt that the Rawlings had both wanted Terry Marley to inherit.
In a significant Supreme Court judgement Lord Neuberger said: “Whether the document in question is a commercial contract or a Will, the aim is to identify the intention of the party or parties to the document by interpreting the words used in their documentary, factual and commercial context. I would therefore allow this appeal and hold that the Will should be rectified so that it contains the typed parts of the Will signed by the late Mrs Rawlings in place of the typed parts of the Will signed by Mr Rawlings.”
The case is unusual in the sense that Mr and Mrs Rawlings had two legitimate sons who had not been included in their wills.
The dispute, in reaching the Supreme Court, has established a clear principle that the intentions of the deceased concerning their estate must be taken into account. The decision widens the definition of ‘clerical error’ which had previously only been applied to correct typographical errors – not to an error in the execution of the Wills.
Sarah Young, Partner in Ridley & Hall Solicitors, Huddersfield comments:
“There must be will writers and solicitors up and down the land who are heaving a sight of relief at this decision! It’s easy to imagine how the Wills came to be mixed up and signed by the wrong person. In a case such as this, where Maureen and Alfred Rawlings both clearly wished Terry Marley to inherit, the Court’s decision is a just one.”
She goes on to add:
“If this case had not been decided in this way, the couple’s sons would have inherited under the intestacy rules and Terry Marley would have been forced to sue the solicitor for the mistake. But professional negligence cases are not always straightforward and extending the definition of clerical error in the way that this case does is a practical and common sense solution.”
Sarah Young adds a warning:
“The case is a salutary reminder that when you sign your Will you should check that it is definitely yours and read it through carefully to check that it doesn’t contain any mistakes, if you want your family to avoid court proceedings after your death!”
Sarah Young is a Partner with Ridley and Hall solicitors. She specialises in contentious probate and personal injury. Sarah has an LLM in Personal Injury Law and has a record of bringing the most complex cases to a successful conclusion.
For further information please contact Sarah Young of Ridley and Hall, Queens House, 35 Market Street, Huddersfield HD1 2HL on 01484 538421 or mobile 07860 165850.