Drafting error lost sons’ claim on their family farm

The England and Wales High Court (EWHC) has agreed that a son was disinherited after his late father’s Will was deemed invalid.

The Court agreed with Timothy Mundil-Williams that his father John Williams lacked knowledge and approval of his 2014 Will despite being drafted by solicitors who properly executed his instructions.

During the proceedings it was heard that prior to his death, John Williams visited his solicitors office in Newport and verbally gave his instructions to a secretary who made notes of the meeting. She then produced a standard form containing details of the testator, the intended beneficiaries and the estate – which totalled £983,000. £700,000 of which was the family farm.

John Williams was a divorcee with four sons. Prior to his death, his eldest son Richard (who had been a partner in the farming business since 1979) had taken over the practical running of the farm before his father instructed his 2014 Will.

When the secretary handed her information over to a paralegal to draft the testator’s will, a discrepancy happened. The paralegal seemingly mis-interpreted the secretary’s notes. The notes that the secretary took would have resulted in Richard inheriting a 62.5% share of the reversion. The paralegal drafted that Richard would inherit the farm outright, with the other three brothers only receiving 12.5% of the residuary estate, not including the farm.

The testator was sent the drafted will, but he didn’t note any of the errors and consequently executed the will at the firm’s offices with the paralegal and secretary acting as witnesses.

Following John’s death, his son Timothy challenged the will highlighting the discrepancies, and revealing they didn’t match his father’s final wishes at all. He asked the EWHC to void the will on the grounds of lack of knowledge and intent. Keyser HHJ in the England and Wales High Court agreed. The evidence showed that John Williams did not appreciate that, under the will, the family farm was not part of the residuary estate and would go entirely to Timothy’s brother Richard. There was, moreover, no evidence that anything occurred between the giving of the instructions and the finalising of the will to cause the testator to change his mind in any significant way, and he had not contacted the solicitors’ firm to change his instructions during that time. He had simply read the draft will shown to him as if it accorded with the intentions those instructions reflected. The 2014 will therefore could not stand, but Keyser had some difficulty in deciding the remedy.

One possibility was to rule it void and admit to probate a will made in 1990 dividing the farm between the four brothers, but that did not reflect the testator’s later intentions. Ultimately, Keyser decided to use the court’s power to exclude some words from the 2014 will and admit that amended version to probate, as confirmed by the UK Supreme Court’s ruling in Marley v Rawlings (2014 UKSC 2). Although in the current case that could not be done in a way that would deliver the testator’s intentions exactly, it was ‘unlikely to represent a major problem’ and ‘falls on the right side of the line’, said Keyser (Mundil-Williams v Williams, 2021 EWHC 586 Ch).

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