A mix-up in signatures on mirror wills should not be allowed to disinherit a couple’s intended heir, the Supreme Court ruled today. 

Giving judgment in the case of Marley v Rawlings and another, Lord Neuberger said that the wills of Maureen and Alfred Rawlings should be treated in the same way as a commercial contract in that an obvious oversight should not be allowed to invalidate the testators’ wishes.

Maureen and Alfred Rawlings had drafted wills in 1999 intending to leave their entire estate to Terry Michael Marley, who was not a blood relation. However due to an alleged oversight by a solicitor, the two accidentally signed each other’s will.

The mistake came to light after Alfred Rawlings' death, when his two sons argued that their father’s will was invalid because it had been signed by the wrong person.

In 2012 The High Court said it was not in its power to change the will, even though there was no doubt that the Rawlings had wanted Marley to inherit.

However in today's Supreme Court judgment Lord Neuberger (pictured) 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.’

He said: ‘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.’ 

Matthew Duncan, head of private client practice at London firm Kingsley Napley, said the court had taken a commonsense approach to interpreting the contract. ‘The welcome point from today’s judgment is that the guiding principle must be the clear intention of the deceased in matters where an error has led to a will dispute,' he said. 

‘Today’s judgment is important because the concept of “clerical error” has now been a given a wider meaning by the Supreme Court. To date, it was thought only typing errors could be fixed.’ 

The appellant was represented by Robert Ham QC and Teresa Rosen Peacocke, who were instructed by London firm Hugh Cartwright & Amin. The respondents were represented by Nicholas Le Poidevin QC and Alexander Learmonth and were instructed by London firm Gillan & Co.

The judgment is here