Daughter fails in her attempt to challenge her late father’s will

A High Court judge recently dismissed a daughter’s claim to overturn her late father’s will

Chloe Brennan, 40, of Reading was the only daughter of Francois Devillebichot, the son of French diplomat Georges Devillebichot and whose estate was valued at £630,000. Chloe was gifted £100,000 but on the passing of her father issued a claim against it, alleging that two of her aunts had unduly influenced her late father into making and signing a shop-bought will seven days before his death.

In December 2009, François underwent surgery to remove his voice box and thereafter was only able to communicate using written notes and gestures. He suffered with ill health and was being treated for throat cancer before his death.

Although a challenge on the grounds of capacity was pleaded by Chloe, everyone agreed that whilst the testator suffered with serious health issues including cancer, he was intelligent, lucid and did not suffer from insanity or delusions.

The terms of the disputed will were:

  • £100,000 to his daughter Chloe
  • A specific legacy of a flat in Cannes to the testator’s sisters Anne and Lucille, his brother Phillippe and the children of a third sister, Jackie.
  • Residue split one quarter to each of the testator’s sisters
  • The late Mr Devillebichot’s home in Harrow, North London

Chloe sought to represent herself in court. This could be seen as either a brave or foolish move on her part. With no solicitor representation she claimed in court that her father had been generous to her in his time and had treated her like a princess. She also said she was born illegitimate and had been required take a DNA test following her father’s death to ‘prove her heritage’. She claimed her father’s siblings had never liked her and didn’t want to know her. She also claimed her father had promised her on her wedding day that she would never have to worry about money after he died.

She further alleged her aunts, Jackie and Anne, together with their cousins Anthony Prior and Andrew Prior who were the executors of the estate, conspired to fraudulently propound an invalid will. They all deny the accusations, along with claims they exerted ‘undue influence’ on their dying brother to get him to make the will.

During the trial Judge Mark Herbert QC agreed with Mrs Brennan that the circumstances of the execution were ‘undoubtedly suspicious’, but found that on the balance of probabilities, there was insufficient evidence to prove undue influence or lack of knowledge and approval.

Undue influence is particularly hard to prove, requiring ‘coercion’ or ‘pressure’ that overpowered the testator’s freedom of action with simple persuasion being insufficient.

While the judge was content to find that there was ample opportunity for and examples of influence, the threshold into undue influence was not crossed.

The trial judge initially awarded a substantial part of the costs against Mrs Brennan, to be paid from her £100,000 legacy in the will. However he did not specify whether her liability was limited to the amount of that legacy, therefore meaning that they could not recover the shortfall from her. The beneficiaries subsequently returned to the High Court to resolve the matter, and last month the Court ruled in their favour confirming Mrs Brennan’s personal liability for costs was not to be limited to the amount of her £100,000 legacy. Justice Snowden commented on the possibility that Mrs Brennan may have to ‘sell her other assets such as her home’ to pay the bill. Do you think this was a fair outcome?

Had she sought legal representation then the outcome could have been very different. What would your advice have been to this client?

Please let us know your view on this matter by leaving a comment below.

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