The turbulent family dynamics that lead to Reeves v Drew & Ors  EWHC 159 (Ch) have made it an extreme and headline-grabbing example of contentious probate. The judgment, by which a £100 million will was found to fail for want of knowledge and approval, is of note also for the serious findings of dishonesty made against a number of witnesses, including the solicitor responsible for preparing the will. For litigators, the case reminds us that sometimes it is evidence that is not disclosed, and so has to be hunted down, that can be key to a successful outcome.
Shortly after her father’s death in 2019 after a long illness, Louise Reeves produced a will dated 2014, which had not previously been seen and which appeared to bequeath 80% of his residuary estate (estimated to be worth approximately £100m) to her and 20% to her sister Lisa. The deceased’s previous will, dated 2012, divided 80% of his residuary estate equally between three of his children, Bill, Louise and Lisa, and the remainder equally between two grandchildren. Bill challenged the will and he, Lisa and the grandchildren were all named as Defendants in the proceedings, by which Louise asked the Court to pronounce in favour of the 2014 will.
There was no substantial dispute as to the law and what was scrutinised were the facts, particularly whether the deceased was able to exercise his own free will in making his will and whether the will truly reflected his testamentary wishes. Proceedings were marked by allegations and cross-allegations of dishonesty, and Mr Justice Michael Green made numerous findings of such, particularly in relation to Louise, Mr Drew (the deceased’s accountant and assistant of many years), and Mr Curnock (the solicitor who prepared both wills). Michael Green J ultimately pronounced against the force and validity of the 2014 will, on the basis that it had not been executed with the knowledge and approval of the deceased due to “extraordinary fraud” engineered by Louise against him.
Take home message
The case highlights the lengths that people can go to in order to benefit themselves, sadly sometimes at the expense of family members, and it seems from media reports that the Reeves family were no strangers to animosity. Regrettably, a common factor in many contentious probate disputes is a long history of family rivalry and conflict which can exacerbate the stress and upset caused by such disputes.
A further point of note is that the case clearly shows how crucial documentary evidence is in litigation, particularly in order to rebut a dishonest witness. During proceedings, parties are supposed to make available, by way of “disclosure”, evidence which either supports or undermines their case. However, if the parties are intent on making dishonest assertions, it is unlikely that they will give full and frank disclosure. It seems that this happened in Reeves and the Defendants were required to apply to court to obtain missing documentation, including mobile phone records, property transactions and solicitors’ notebooks. Contrary to the evidence given by witnesses, this documentary evidence established that Louise and Mr Curnock were more closely connected than they had admitted, and also the extent of Mr Curnock’s dealings with the estate. It was that documentary evidence that undermined the credibility of the witnesses, and so assisted Michael Green J in making his judgment.
The judgment can be found here: https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2022/159.html
This case serves as a useful reminder of the importance of obtaining appropriate legal advice and assistance at an early stage, so that a robust case plan, including evidence gathering, can be put in place promptly. If you need help with a dispute about a will, our contentious probate team can help with all aspects, and have particular experience of dealing with the difficult family dynamics that often underlie these matters. We can also help if you are concerned that someone could be taking advantage of a vulnerable person, including by attempting to defraud them or otherwise coerce them.
If you there is a dispute about a will or someone’s estate, and you would like to know how we can help, please contact Rachel on 020 7091 2706, who is a Partner in our Litigation & Dispute Resolution team, who specialises in disputed wills and contentious probate, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The above is accurate as at 17 February 2021. The information above may be subject to change during these ever-changing times.
The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case-by-case basis.