Paws for thought?

Can a domestic cat influence the administration of an estate?

Yes, according to the unusual facts in the estate of Dean Brunt deceased.

Mr Brunt died in 2007. Since no valid will could be found, his £2m estate was administered according to the rules of intestacy. As Mr Brunt had no children the whole estate passed to his mother Marlene.

Ten years later a cat in the office of legal advisor Howard Day was busy roaming from room to room. A pile of papers had been put aside for shredding. The cat knocked over the pile. As the papers were picked up a will of Mr Brunt was discovered dated March 1999.

Although Mr Day had made attendance notes confirming Mr Brunt`s instructions, there were several suspicious circumstances requiring explanation: differences in handwriting on copies of the will, an error in the middle name of Mr Brunt, concerns that Mr Day had signed the will on behalf of Mr Brunt, and concerns over the witnesses.

Marlene claimed the will was a forgery. Expert handwriting evidence also cast doubt on the validity of the will.

The matter came before the High Court in March 2020. Mr Day, who had a previous conviction for fraud, had died before the trial.

Despite the concerns raised and the expert evidence produced, the High Court held that the will was valid.

Marlene successfully appealed to the Court of Appeal.

The Court of Appeal has now ordered a retrial because of errors in the approach of the trial judge when assessing the evidence before concluding that the will was not a forgery.

The full decision has yet to be handed down, but the main areas of concern were:

  • Inadequate explanation why the trial judge found the evidence of certain witnesses truthful and other witnesses untruthful (and a review of the motives of witnesses)
  • The expert handwriting evidence should have been given greater weight (when other evidence indicated a forgery) and not rejected.

The retrial is awaited with interest by lawyers dealing with contentious probate claims.

The estate cannot be administered until the retrial concludes if the will is a forgery or is valid as this will determine the beneficiaries entitled to the estate.

Three hearings and a good deal of legal argument all because of a cat knocking over a file of papers!

If you are an executor or beneficiary and have concerns about the validity of a will and whether this could be a forgery or falsified, please contact our private client department for advice.

Author: Tony Illsley is a solicitor and partner with Rutherfords LLP

Case: Wrangle v Brunt [2020] EWHC 1784 (Ch)

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