At the end of last year the High Court heard the case of Reeves v Drew & Others, which concerned a challenge to the validity of a will made by successful businessman Kevin Reeves, on the grounds of want of knowledge and approval and undue influence. Whilst there was a lot of public interest in the case at the time due to the characters involved, the judgment also provides a comprehensive summary of the legal principles relevant to claims advanced on these grounds.

Kevin Reeves, the deceased, was described as ‘an incredibly sharp, tough and successful businessman’ who had built a remarkable fortune of approximately £100 million during his lifetime. The deceased passed away unexpectedly on 3 February 2019 at the age of 71, resulting in a feud between his children and grandchildren over his estate. During the three week trial in November 2021 the court was asked to determine claims on the grounds of want of knowledge and approval and undue influence.

The Two Wills

The deceased made two wills, one in 2012 and one in 2014. According to the terms of the deceased's 2012 will, 80% of his residuary estate was to be divided among his three children Louise, Bill and Lisa in three equal parts. His two grandchildren were to receive the remaining 20% of the estate in equal parts. The deceased made a further will in 2014 and there was a stark difference between the terms of the 2012 and 2014 wills. Under the 2014 will the deceased left 80% of his residuary estate to his daughter Louise, and the remaining 20% to Lisa, completely excluding Bill and his two grandchildren as beneficiaries.

Louise issued a claim for the 2014 will to be upheld, however this was challenged by Bill who claimed that the deceased was unduly influenced by Louise and that their father did not know and approve the contents of the 2014 will.

The Issues

There were two issues which Mr Justice Michael Green needed to determine; (i) whether the deceased knew and approved the contents of the 2014 will; and (ii) whether the deceased executed the 2014 will as a result of undue influence, exercised by Louise.

The deceased’s literacy was a key issue in the proceedings and the judge considered the evidence from 49 live witnesses to conclude that the deceased was illiterate. This was crucial to the judge’s findings as it related to whether the deceased knew and approved of the contents of the 2014 will. The judge stated that “the Claimant grossly exaggerated the deceased's ability to read in her evidence” and that she would “have known that the deceased would not have been able to read the 2014 will by himself and she probably hoped that he would not try.”

The will making process was also thoroughly discussed in the judgment, and it was found that the claimant and the solicitor who drafted the will “sought to conceal the extent of their dealings together”. The judge highlighted that there were inconsistencies between attendance notes and that there was “no proof that the deceased read the draft 2014 will; nor is there any evidence that it was read to him.” Mr Justice Michael Green further criticised the solicitor involved in drafting the will, stating that “the preparation of the 2014 will was not merely incompetent; it was reckless and quite possibly dishonest.”

The Decision

Mr Justice Michael Green concluded that the Claimant had not proved that the deceased knew and approved the contents of the 2014, despite being of sound mind and the will having been duly executed. The 2014 will was therefore found to be invalid. In the judge’s view, the ‘dramatic change to the deceased’s testamentary intentions, together with the deep involvement of the Claimant with the solicitor tasked with implementing that change in the Claimant’s favour are circumstances that do very much excite “the vigilance and suspicion of the court’”.

Unusually, the judge also found that even though “one might have thought that the involvement of a solicitor would strengthen the presumption of validity”, in this case it was “quite the reverse”.

The judge dismissed the claim that the deceased was unduly influenced by the Claimant to make the 2014 will. His findings on knowledge and approval precluded any finding that the 2014 will was procured by the exercise of undue influence. However the judge did go on to set out in his judgment the legal test for undue influence and confirmed that “the person alleging undue influence essentially has to show that the will in question was not procured by the exercise of the testator’s own free will which has been overborne by external forces”.

In this case, the judge ruled that it was “not enough to show that the Claimant tried to persuade the deceased to favour her in his will”. He concluded that there was “no real evidence of undue influence being exercised in relation to the 2014 will” and stated that rather than “applying pressure on the deceased to make a will in her favour, the Claimant pulled the wool over his eyes so that he did not know that his will had so radically changed from his earlier one.”

In cases of this nature the court will look at the unique facts and circumstances of the case it is considering. This case is a reminder that all of the relevant information will be scrutinised and that often the facts will overlap, allowing claimants to challenge a will on several grounds in the alternative. Whilst the court will expect to be presented with compelling and persuasive evidence before it will consider setting aside a will, this decision shows that where that evidence exists the court is willing to overturn a will where it is not established that the testator had the requisite knowledge and approval, even in some cases where the will has been prepared by a solicitor.