It is well known that undue influence is notoriously difficult to establish in the context of a Will. Charities that have been involved in undue influence cases in their capacity as beneficiaries will already know that successful cases of this kind are extremely rare, most notably because the main witness is, of course, dead. Providing evidence about whether that person has been unduly influenced is therefore particularly difficult. In cases of this kind there needs to be evidence of coercion, which in itself is not easy to prove; persuasion or preying on somebody’s vulnerable or generous nature is simply not enough.
However, much like buses, successful undue influence claims seem to have all come at once in recent months. The most widely talked about of these is Schrader v Schrader. In this case Mrs Schrader was a 98 year old widow who had two sons, Nick and Bill. In 2006 she made a will leaving her house, which was the main asset of her estate, to Nick only and her residuary estate (which amounted to virtually nothing) to both Nick and Bill. Under the provisions of her previous will she had divided her estate between her two sons equally.
Despite the absence of any direct evidence of coercion, the Court inferred that the testatrix’s execution of the Will must have been the result of undue influence by Nick. What makes this case unusual is that there was not one particular factor or example of coercion that led to the court’s decision. Rather it was an accumulation of peculiar facts and circumstances which persuaded the court that undue influence had been present, such as Nick’s forceful personality, his involvement in the preparation of the will (combined with an attempt to cover this up in his evidence), and the testatrix’s vulnerability. Nick’s personality appeared to be the nail in his coffin, with the court referring to him as “a forceful man with a forceful presence”.
The court in Schrader appear to have waived the requirement of coercion. While this hints that undue influence cases are becoming easier to prove, not all cases will have an individual such as
Nick involved! What the case does reinforce is how important the parties’ characters and personalities are to the courts when reaching a conclusion. It is yet unclear as to whether more successful undue influence cases will follow but it is certainly an area of the law that charities should keep an eye on.