The national press has reported widely on the case of Ben Field, the 28 year old church warden who was convicted on Friday of killing retired teacher and university lecturer Peter Farquhar in an effort to inherit his estate after he died.

Field befriended Farquhar and then set about convincing him that he was losing his mind using a form of psychological manipulation know as gaslighting. Tom Rawstorne for The Daily Mail said “A few months before his death, Peter Farquhar spoke to his parish priest about fears that had been plaguing him day and night, By then the 69-year-old’s health had deteriorated to the stage that he was at time rambling, incoherent and suffering from hallucinations. He particularly dreaded the mornings when he would wake to find himself covered in bruises or with his prized possessions swept from the shelves with no memory of what had happened”. The Mirror reported that Field is said to have “had a hand-written “client list” of 100 potential future victims. The Guardian reported that “jurors were told of Field’s elaborate project of first befriending the individuals, who were vulnerable and lonely, then defrauding them by allowing them to think he was in a loving relationship with them, and encouraging them to change their will to benefit him. He then began a devastating campaign of physical and mental torture”.

The BBC reported that when Field was arrested he said“I think I will get away with most of it”. Fortunately he has not but whilst Field’s behaviour may be in the extreme, cases such as these where individuals seek to take advantage of elderly or vulnerable people in an effort to benefit from their estates after death is sadly not uncommon.

In England & Wales, you have the right to leave your estate to whoever you choose but a surprise beneficiary or unexpectedly large gift may cause alarm bells to ring for those left behind. A Will can be invalidated for any one of the following reasons:

  1. It has not been correctly executed
  2. The deceased lacked the necessary mental capacity
  3. The deceased lacked knowledge or approval of the content of their Will
  4. The testator was subject to undue influence
  5. The Will is forged/fraudulent.

In the Field case, putting to one side for now the criminal conduct, his reported behaviour could almost certainly give rise to a potential undue influence claim. These claims come about when it is suspected that the deceased has done something that they might not have done had it not been for the influence of another (usually the main beneficiary under the Will). Effectively, the deceased’s own judgement has been abandoned having succumbed to the manipulative behaviour of another. In order to succeed, the claimant must be able to show that the deceased was coerced into making a Will, in effect that the person making the Will was influenced to the extent that their free will was completely oppressed. Direct evidence of undue influence is unusual, given that the very nature of the act means that it happens behind closed doors hence these claims not always straightforward and the quality of evidence, be it direct or circumstantial, should be considered carefully at an early stage.

In the absence of sufficient evidence to prove undue influence, prospective claimants may wish to consider a want of knowledge and approval claim. These claims arise when the circumstances surrounding the making of a Will appear to be suspicious. A testator must have knowledge and approval of the contents of a Will in order for it to be valid. In these cases, the onus of proof is put on the party relying on the disputed Will to show that it reflects the deceased testamentary influence. Claims of this type are particularly common in respect of homemade wills.

Whilst the details of the timing and execution of the late Mr Farquhar’s Will are not known to the writer, it is possible that mental capacity could also have been an issue. An individual will be considered to have sufficient mental capacity to make a Will if he understands the following:

  1. The nature of the act of making a Will and its effect, i.e. that he is setting out to whom he wishes his property to pass on his death;
  2. The extent of his property; and
  3. The individuals for whom he is morally bound to provide and the consequences of not providing for such individuals.

In circumstances whereby Field is said to have been on a mission “to set out to destroy the minds” of his victims (The Daily Mail) it is possible that Mr Farquhar did not have the requisite mental capacity at the time of executing his Will.

The harrowing death of Mr Farquhar is desperately sad serving only as yet another reminder of the vulnerability of so many.