Wills and testamentary capacity

The recent case of Hughes v Pritchard [2021] has shed further light on what happens when a person with dementia makes a significant change to their will.

The case

In his previous wills Evan Hughes, a farmer, left his son Elfed Hughes 58 acres of farmland land known as Yr Efail. In September 2015, Elfed sadly took his own life. Evan then changed it in 2016 to give the land to his other son Gareth.

This was surprising as Elfed had worked on the farm his whole life to his detriment, working long hours and never taking time off. He relied heavily on the promises his father made to him, that he was doing this for himself and would inherit the farm one day.

In 2016, Evan Hughes was suffering from dementia, which progressively became worse, and it was in this state that he changed the will.

The Judge confirmed the will was not valid, due to Evan Hughes lacking testamentary capacity.

The Golden Rule

This case is of significance because in the signing and completion of the 2016 will, the 'golden rule' was followed, and yet the will was disputed. The 'golden rule' is that a solicitor will refer a person of old age (or other reasons) to their doctor to ensure testamentary capacity is met, when producing or changing a will.

Evan's doctor confirmed that he had testamentary capacity, however when questioned later the doctor said that if he had seen the wills and understood the changes were significant, rather than 'minor', he would not have approved Evan's testamentary capacity. Furthermore, the joint court appointed expert, Dr Series, said Evan did have capacity when making the change to his will.

Despite the evidence of both doctors, HH Judge Jarman QC relied on the well-established case of Banks v Goodfellow (1870) and decided that the significant change in the will clearly indicated that Evan Hughes did not have testamentary capacity.  Therefore, the final will was disputed.

Proprietary estoppel 

The Judge further acknowledged that if the will was not disputed, the elements of proprietary estoppel would have been relevant here.

The Judge cited Davies v Davies and considered the required elements for a proprietary estoppel claim to succeed, which consist of assurance, reliance on the assurance, detriment suffered and finally unconscionability see Proprietary estoppel: Does a promise to transfer land have to be in writing?.

The Court found that Elfed had worked tirelessly on the farm throughout his life, in clear reliance on the promises that his father made to him that he was doing this for himself; He had worked very hard and had produced prize-winning stock. In effect he had suffered detriment as he did not pursue his own interests, he had sacrificed his weekends and family time, he had paid for the majority of farm expenses, as well as purchasing land adjoining his father's land.

Wider importance

This case highlights the need for rural landowners to take care and consider capacity issues when making changes to their wills, even when following well established procedures.

This case also shows how the doctrine of proprietary estoppel can sometimes step in to give effect to promises where a will fails to reflect those assurances. It also emphasises the considerable advantage of documenting arrangements, including promises, in writing so that misunderstandings (and legal fees) can be avoided.