When a Jersey multi-millionaire gave most of his assets away to one of his daughters in the months prior to his death, leaving an estate of less than £100,000 to be shared by all three of his children, it was perhaps inevitable that a legal challenge would result.
The man and his wife had previously made ‘mutual wills’, under which the surviving spouse undertook to divide their estate equally amongst their children. Had the man sought to alter his will to favour one of his children over the others, this would have been open to a challenge on the basis that the mutual will prevented him from changing the terms of his will after his wife had passed away.
A few months before his death at the age of 96, however, the man sold his £3.5 million house to one of his daughters for £1 and also gave most of his other assets to her. As such, the overwhelming majority of his assets were no longer part of his estate at the time of his death.
His other daughter is now challenging his decision to give away most of his assets, which was made after he had had two strokes, arguing that this was procured by ‘undue influence’ on the part of her sister. A claim of undue influence commonly results when a testator changes his or her will, or gives away assets shortly before death, in a way which seems unfairly detrimental to some of the parties who might reasonably have expected to benefit substantially under the will. However, the burden of proof rests with the person claiming that undue influence has been exercised, so such claims are not easy to sustain.
In this case, the enormous difference in value between the gifts received by the daughter and the bequests to the other children, combined with the man’s apparent attempt to sidestep the terms of the mutual will made when his wife was alive, are likely to result in a long-running legal dispute, with a particularly careful weighing-up of the available evidence.