Read the award-winning Clutton Cox Blog

News and Events

Disputed Wills: Bleak House Revisited 2012

View profile for Paul Hajek
  • Posted
  • Author

A disputed Will
in the case of
Jarndyce v Jarndyce was the centre piece of Charles Dickens “Bleak House”.

 In Bleak House, the poor litigants endured years of delay fighting their claim to the Jarndyce estate through the Court of Chancery.  The judge eventually ruled many years later, that although judgment was in their favour, there were simply no funds, after payment of all the legal fees, remaining to distribute to them, and the case collapsed.

The Dickens novel is often used as a bye-word for the potential cost ravages of the English legal system.

Fast forward to the Court of Appeal in 2012:  that same bleak outcome became a reality for a feuding family when a bitter legal battle over the disputed Will of their mother was finally resolved.

And the costs of the litigation exhausted the monies in the estate.

Bleak House Revisited 2012

The Estate of Daphne Burgess which amounted to some £200,000 literally petered out after her son Peter and one of her daughters, Libby, successfully overturned his mother’s Will which had omitted Peter as a beneficiary and gave all of her estate to her two daughters Libby and Julia.

The original trial had lasted 6 days and involved 26 witnesses.

The judge referred to the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce” in his summing up but sought to make one crucial difference: in the Dickens novel the monies from the estate withered to nothing over generations. The exhausting of the inheritance in Burgess case:

“happened faster than under the dilatory procedures of the unreformed Court of Chancery in Jarndyce”

Background to the Burgess Case:

In 1996 Mrs. Burgess made a Will under which she passed her estate to her three children equally.

In 2007, Mrs. Burgess whose health was in decline made a new Will dividing her estate equally between her two daughters and excluded her son.

Crucially, Mrs. Burgess was accompanied by Julia, one of her daughters, who was present during the meeting with her Solicitor. Inaccurate information, it was revealed at the trial, had also been provided to her Solicitor about previous financial provision made by Mrs. Burgess to her son.  

The High Court found that Julia was instrumental in making the appointment for her mother to change her Will and was a ‘controlling force’ and the “driving force”

The High  Court held that the Will was invalid because the mother lacked “testamentary capacity” and lack of "knowledge and approval" of the contents of the Will.

Julia appealed.

The Court of Appeal upheld the Court’s finding that the Will was invalid on the grounds of “knowledge and approval” i.e. It could not be proved that the wishes and intentions of Mrs. Burgess were known to and approved by her at the time of making the Will.

The Court of Appeal declined to rule on the issue of mental capacity at the time of the making of the Will as it was sufficient that the Will was invalid on the grounds of lack of “knowledge and approval”.

What Does This Mean For You When Making Your Will?

The Court of Appeal was reluctant to rule on the matter of “Testamentary Capacity” as to do so would overrule the evidence of the Solicitor who maintained that Mrs. Burgess was competent to make the Will.

The invalidity resulted from the lack of “knowledge and approval” on Mrs. Burgess’s part due to false information of the background to making the new Will provided to the Solicitor by her daughter Julia who was present at the meeting.

You would be well advised to have your Will drawn up by a Solicitor.

The Courts give great weight to evidence of proper execution of Wills and rely heavily on the opinions of Solicitors. Would you really want to rely on a home-made Will which could be challenged?

Disputed Wills are on the increase – a rise of 700% in just the last five years.

If you would like to make a Will with us take advantage of our free initial consultation.

It could save you thousands of pounds or mean that unlike in Bleak House there will be monies to distribute to your beneficiaries from your estate

You can see the full transcript of the Court of Appeal decision here

Paul Hajek