Mistakes in wills

Sometimes wills simply do not reflect what was intended. It can be because of a mistake in the drafting, a mistake in understanding instructions, or simply because the grammar or choice of words is confusing.

We have a long list of reported cases where we have successfully resolved disputes arising from mistakes in wills. We also posses considerable experience in bringing negligence claims in relation to these errors.

One of our recent cases shows how even highly intelligent people can make errors that give rise to disputes. We acted for the Royal Society after it was left a legacy from the well-known nuclear physicist, Michael Crowley-Milling, of all his assets ‘in the United Kingdom.’ Described as a scientific genius, it appears that Mr Crowley-Milling made a geographical error, assuming that the United Kingdom would include his assets in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. We successfully argued that this was an oversight, and he had intended to leave almost £1 million held in bank accounts in these locations to the charity.

There are two main ways to put right a mistake or clarify an ambiguity: rectification (known in the US as reformation) and construction. Rectification/reformation is allowed where there is either a clerical error (which is defined very broadly); or a misunderstanding of instructions. If this can’t be achieved, your only redress may be a negligence claim if the will was professionally drafted.

The usual way to resolve ambiguity is through a ‘construction application’, which asks the court to decide what the words in the Will mean. These invitations to the court can sometimes be brought on behalf of the executors. The Crowley-Milling case was about what was meant by the words ‘in the United Kingdom’ but in the past the court has been asked to rule on the placing of a comma.

With extensive practical knowledge of mistakes in wills and how to resolve them, we bring claims on behalf of executors, disappointed beneficiaries, individuals and charities seeking clarity. We also defend will-drafters accused of negligence.

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Will disputes: don't let an error invalidate your will


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Recognition

Top ranked firm for contentious trusts

Top ranked firm for private wealth disputes

Top tier firm for contentious trusts and probate

Contentious trusts and estates team of the year (2015-2017)

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The estate of Mr Michael Crowley-Milling was complex, spanned several geographical regions, and raised practical interpretation problems that necessitated opinions from Withers, a presentation to the trustee body, and ultimately a court hearing. At all stages, Paul Hewitt provided clear, intelligible advice and answered questions readily and accurately, and the trustee body was content that he be our lead contact throughout the months of this contentious issue. The Royal Society is grateful for the assiduous work that Paul and Katie Emerson put in to bring the matter to a successful conclusion.

Julie Maxton, Executive Director - Royal Society

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Track record

Wooldridge v Wooldridge

Our lawyers brought the highest value Inheritance Act claim to date in Wooldridge v Wooldridge (2016). We were acting for a widow who sought to increase provision under her husband’s will after his death in a helicopter accident. The will had been “homemade”, written without legal advice, and our client felt that her husband had intended to leave her a greater share of his assets.

The Royal Society v Robinson

An eminent physicist, Michael Crowley-Milling who made English and Swiss wills bequeathed our client the Royal Society “all my assets in the United Kingdom”. The technical definition of United Kingdom excluded almost £1 million in bank accounts in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. We successfully argued that the scientific genius had made a geographical error, and had intended to give these assets to the charity as well.

Nicholas Turquand-Young

We worked with Jersey advocates and advised Macmillan Cancer Support on an application before the Royal Court of Jersey about the correct interpretation of a will. Under the will, two shares of residue were left to Macmillan, but under different former names. The executor considered Macmillan only took one share. The Royal Court, applying English law, held that Macmillan was entitled to two shares.

Heir to a publishing fortune

Withers represented one of the heirs to a publishing fortune in a case arising out of a dispute with his children over the administration of various family trusts. Withers successfully resolved the dispute through alternative dispute resolution in California avoiding a costly court battle and prolonged family discord.

Hawksford Executors

Paul Hewitt and Phineas Hirsch worked with Jersey advocates for the RSPCA, Cancer Research UK and RAF Benevolent Fund in securing an order that Mrs Ivelaw had retained her English domicile of origin after many years living in Belgium and that she had not intended to revoke an earlier Jersey will benefitting the three charities when she made a later Belgian will.

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