Unravelling Undue Influence: Lessons from Rea v Rea

Undue influence in a Will occurs when somebody has been coerced into making a decision that they otherwise would not have made.

Undue influence can come from various sources, such as family members, caregivers or other individuals with a vested interest in the contents of the Will. Undue influence can be subtle or overt, ranging from emotional manipulation to outright threats, and it often targets individuals who are vulnerable due to age, illness or dependency. When undue influence is present, it undermines the autonomy of the testator and can lead to provisions in their Will that do not accurately reflect their wishes.

Undue influence can be difficult to establish. It is for the person making such an allegation to prove it as true. Undue influence must be proven to the civil standard; it must be more likely than not to have happened. A recent case, Rea v Rea, has reiterated and provided further clarity on the principles that must be assessed in order for there to be a finding of undue influence.

The case

In Rea v Rea, the deceased, Anna, had four children: Rita, Remo, Nino and David. In the last 7 years of Anna’s life, she suffered from a number of health conditions and became wheelchair-bound. Anna’s daughter, Rita, moved in with her and became her primary carer until she died in 2016.

During her lifetime, Anna made two Wills. The first was made in 1986, in which she left her entire estate equally between her four children. The second Will was made in 2015. In this Will, Anna left her house to Rita and the remainder of the estate was to be split equally between the four children. This meant that Rita was due to inherit far more than her three siblings. The 2015 Will was drafted by a solicitor and a capacity assessment was completed by a doctor at the time. Neither the solicitor nor the doctor raised any concerns about Anna or the circumstances under which the Will was made.

Upon Anna’s death, Remo, Nino and David became aware of the 2015 Will and were very angry about its contents. They issued proceedings against the Will in 2017, claiming that Rita had unduly influenced Anna and caused them to inherit far less than their mother would have wanted them to.

The matter began with a three-day trial in 2019, in which the Judge concluded that Anna had not been unduly influenced by Rita. However, Remo, Nino and David brought an appeal against this decision due to a procedural issue which they claimed “caused serious prejudice”. This led to a re-trial in 2023. At the re-trial the Judge made a finding of undue influence. They assessed all of the facts of the case, such as Anna’s vulnerability and dependency upon Rita, the drastic change in wishes from the 1986 Will to the 2015 Will and that Rita had organised for her mother to meet with a solicitor to change her Will. In February 2024, the case was appealed again and heard at the Court of Appeal. The Judge reversed the decision and ruled that Anna was not unduly influenced and that therefore, the 2015 Will is valid.

Lessons learnt from the Court of Appeal’s judgment

By overturning the ruling, the Court of Appeal confirmed the principles necessary for determining undue influence. They emphasised that a person’s vulnerability does not automatically lead to the conclusion that a person was unable to make their own decisions and that just because somebody has a forceful personality, does not mean that they have unduly influenced a testator.

In their judgement, the Judge highlighted that the circumstances of the case must overwhelmingly suggest that undue influence is the most likely explanation. If an alternative explanation can be proposed, or is equally as or more plausible, then a finding of undue influence cannot be justified. Rea v Rea established that the initial assumption should lean towards undue influence being “inherently improbable.”

This sets a high bar to overcome in order to prove undue influence; all other possible innocent explanations must be thoroughly explored first. For example, in Rea v Rea, Rita arranged for her mother to meet with the solicitor to draft the Will and was present during the meeting. While this could be perceived as a method of coercion by Rita, an alternative reason, and arguably a more likely hypothesis, was that Rita was simply helping out her mother. It is not uncommon practice for an elderly parent to ask for assistance from their child. Moreover, as was suggested by the Judge, Rita’s presence at the meeting could be interpreted as Anna expressing her gratitude to Rita for the care she gave.

Ultimately, Rea v Rea serves as a reminder of the inherent complexities of navigating allegations of undue influence and the importance of upholding the integrity of testamentary freedom while safeguarding against coercion and manipulation.

Our dedicated Wills, Trust and Estate Disputes team can help guide individuals through these complexities. For further information or guidance please contact us today for a no-obligation meeting.

Picture of By Lauren Kite, Trainee Solicitor

By Lauren Kite, Trainee Solicitor

Undue influence in a Will occurs when somebody has been coerced into making a decision that they otherwise would not have made.

Unravelling Undue Influence: Lessons from Rea v Rea

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