Williams v Seals [2014] EWHC 3708 (Ch) is a useful illustration of the court’s approach in such cases.

The deceased was a farmer. He had two sons and a daughter. He had inherited the farm in equal shares with his sister from their parents. His estate consisted of a half-interest in the farm (the other half being held by the children of his deceased sister), some grazing land and a residential property also inherited from his parents. The value of the estate was between £570,000 and £675,000.

The deceased’s wife died of cancer in August 2010. He found it difficult to cope with his wife’s illness and with life after her death. He consulted his GP with symptoms of depression in March 2010 and was prescribed anti-depressants. He attended A&E in September and November 2012 and was seen by the mental health team, who identified grief and loneliness, but no major disordering mental illness. He committed suicide in December 2013.

Following his wife’s death, the deceased became friendly with Mrs Williams. She telephoned him each evening for a chat. There were letters and notes written by the deceased to Williams suggesting a considerable degree of emotional dependence on her.

On 12 May 2011 the deceased made a will, drafted by a firm of solicitors and executed at their premises. It appointed Williams as sole executor and left everything to her. The deceased signed the following letter of wishes, also drafted by the solicitors:

‘In my Will I have made no provision for my children. The reason for this is that since my late Wife’s death they have no further contact with me and indeed my daughter declared whilst my Wife was still alive that she did not wish to benefit from any of my assets. That my children have acted in this way is extremely regrettable to me, but after much careful consideration and [sic] I have now executed my Will excluding them all from any benefit and instead benefiting someone who has been a very good friend and help to me.

I would wish this letter to be produced if a claim is made against my Estate by them either under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents [sic]) Act 1975 or otherwise.’

Both sons contended that the letter was incorrect and that that they continued to visit the deceased on a regular basis. In October 2014 they brought claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 and also claimed damages in respect of physical and other abuse which they and their mother suffered at the hands of the deceased. They registered a caution against the farm.

All three children indicated an intention to challenge the validity of the will on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence.

Williams applied for the cancellation of a caution to enable the scheduled sale at auction of the farm to continue.

The parties agreed that the correct approach was set out by Morgan J in Nugent v Nugent [2013] EWHC 4095 (Ch). The court must order the vacation of an entry on the register where the claim on which the entry is based has no real prospect of success. Where there is a seriously arguable case that the parties would succeed at trial in obtaining a proprietary interest in the estate, it is necessary to determine whether either or both parties would be adequately compensated by an award of damages.

In the present case the claims under the 1975 act might succeed (although it was unlikely that a court would order the transfer of any interest in the land to the sons). There was no credible evidence of lack of testamentary capacity but the claim based on undue influence might succeed, in which case the deceased’s children as the next of kin would be entitled to the net estate. It was therefore, necessary to consider the adequacy of damages as a remedy.

Richards J said there were a number of points to note.

  • The deceased’s estate was entitled only to a half-share in the farm. The executors and beneficiaries of the deceased’s sister, as owners of the other half-share, wished to sell the land.
  • Therefore, if the deceased’s children wished to use the farm in any way, they would need to agree a purchase of the other half-interest and they would need to raise the funds to do so.
  • The children had no interest in farming any of the land or living at the farm.
  • They wished to maximise the value of the farm and land with a view to benefiting financially from its development potential.
  • The sons had very limited means and did not have the resources available to them either to buy the other half-interest in the farm or to develop the property. There was no evidence of the financial resources, if any, available to the daughter.

He ordered that the caution should be vacated.

The risks to the estate if the farm and other land could not be sold until a trial of the action had three elements: interest on the purchase price in the meantime; expenditure to maintain the property; and the possibility of a decline in market value. It was not apparent from the evidence that, without success on one or more of their claims, the respondents would be in a position to meet a claim to compensate the estate for any of these items.

On the other side of the equation, it was the intention of the children to develop the land rather than to farm it. Essentially their interest in the land was financial. While Williams has not put any evidence before the court of her financial resources, the evidence of the sons was that they understand her to be independently wealthy and to be the sole freehold owner of two properties over which there were no registered charges.

There was no evidence to suggest that the terms on which the farm was to be sold were anything other than the most appropriate and there was evidence that a delay in the sale could be damaging to the price ultimately received, even without any change in market values.

Richards J concluded that the sons would be unable to compensate the estate for any loss which it might suffer as a result of the caution remaining in place, while it appears likely that Williams would be able to compensate the respondents for any loss resulting from the cancellation of the caution.

Note: Williams had earlier applied for and obtained (from a different judge) a Beddoe order giving her leave to defend any and all claims brought by the respondents. Paragraph 3 provided for her to be indemnified by the estate against all costs of litigation.

Such an order did not appear to be appropriate. Essentially this was litigation between rival adult beneficiaries of the estate: the respondents on the one hand and Williams as sole beneficiary of the will on the other. The respondents might wish to consider whether they were entitled to apply to discharge or vary the order.