One of the fundamental requirements of a Will has always been that the document is ‘signed’ in the presence of at least two witnesses who must in turn confirm this by signing the Will themselves.
But what does ‘sign’ actually mean? You might reasonably assume that this means a person’s signature but a recent appeal court decision demonstrates that this is not necessarily so.
Following the death of John Henry Adrian Payne in 2012, a dispute arose over which of the two Wills he had made was actually valid. Mr Payne had been married twice and had four children from his first marriage.
A Will made in 1998 left everything to Mr Payne’s second wife but, oddly, a space for witness signatures was missing from the document, which meant that the two witnesses had only printed their names in block capitals.
A later ‘homemade’ Will made in 2012, left £15,000 each to Mr Payne’s second wife and his grandson, Thomas, with the bulk of the £600,000 estate left to John, one of his four sons from his first marriage. However, suspicions arose regarding the validity of the second Will, in part because the witnesses – who had at least signed their names properly this time – were found to be Thomas’ girlfriend and her mother.
In the initial court ruling, the judge found that the two witnesses who had signed the 2012 Will were “utterly unreliable” and had shown “manifest untrustworthiness”. The court therefore refused to allow this Will to enter into probate.
The judge found that as Mr Payne’s second wife was unable to produce the original 1998 Will and had not been able to provide the correct witness evidence due to the lack of signatures, this Will was also not valid. It was therefore concluded that Mr Payne had died intestate (without a valid Will.)
However, both parties decided to appeal the ruling. Mr Payne’s son, John, later had his appeal application rejected but Mr Payne’s second wife was this time able to provide the necessary additional witness evidence. Both the original witnesses provided written affidavits and, in addition, one of the witnesses gave evidence in person at the appeal court.
The appeal judges found in favour of Mr Payne’s second wife and declared that the original 1998 Will was in fact valid, even though it had not included witness signatures.
Lee McClellan, a Partner with Palmers, who specialises in contested Wills, said: “The appeal court decided that the requirement for the witnesses to ‘sign’ the Will did not in fact mean that a “signature” was vital. It instead ruled that it was sufficient for witnesses to merely write their name with the intention that this confirmed their attestation.
“However, despite the outcome of this case and previous cases which found Wills to be valid where the person making them had printed their name, it remains strongly advisable for all parties signing a Will to use their formal signatures so as to avoid arguments over validity.
“This long-running dispute also highlights the benefit of using a specialist solicitor to help draw up a Will, make any subsequent amendments (codicils) and also store the latest copy safely, to avoid the validity of the document later being called into question.”
For advice on Will writing, matters relating to probate and estate administration or post-death disputes, please contact us.