High Court: Man wins appeal against Circuit Court finding that uncle’s will was invalid



High Court
High Court

A man who was left a 55-acre farm in his uncle’s only will, which was made a few days before his death, has won an appeal against the finding of the Circuit Court that the will was invalid.

Overturning the finding that the deceased did not have the requisite mental capacity to make his will, Mr Justice Charles Meenan was satisfied that the deceased had testamentary capacity to make the will on the date it was drawn up, and that it made rational and logical sense to leave the farm to one family member who had the most involvement in agricultural matters.

Background

Mr Michael Buckley died on 20 March 2011. He lived in on a 54.8-acre farm in Wexford, which he left to his nephew, Richard Cooper Junior, in a will dated 15 March 2011. The deceased had lived on the farm for most of his life, which had been left to him by his mother.

In January 2012, the deceased’s siblings, Joseph Buckley, Teresa Doyle, William Buckley, Elizabeth Buckley, issued a Succession Law Civil Bill wherein they claimed that the deceased lacked the requisite mental capacity to properly and legally dispose of the property. They alleged that Mr Cooper Junior and his family “monopolised visiting hours during the last few weeks of the deceased’s life in an effort to exert pressure and influence him, in his weakened state, into disposing of his property to the defendant, and the purported will was obtained by undue influence.”

Mr Cooper Junior maintained that at the time of the execution of the will, the deceased had testamentary capacity and denied that the deceased was under any undue or improper influence.

Circuit Court

in January 2017, the Circuit Court found that the deceased was not of sound disposing mind on the date of execution to make his will and that the purported will was condemned. The Court further found that the deceased did not have the mental capacity required under s. 77 of the Succession Act 1965 to render his will valid.

It followed that the deceased died intestate.

High Court 

Mr Cooper Junior appealed the decision of the Circuit Court. the High Court heard that the deceased had undergone an operation on his bowl on the 10 March 2011, and that after that he was prescribed OxyContin for pain management. The nursing notes for 14-18 March 2011 indicated a stabilisation of the deceased, however he deteriorated on the 19 March 2011 and died the following day.

Undue influence

Considering the claim of undue influence submitted by the family, Mr Justice Meenan heard evidence from witnesses who gave evidence as to the character of the deceased. The court heard that Mr Cooper Junior’s mother, Sheila, took on the bulk of the responsibility for caring for the deceased has his health deteriorated in late 2010. The court also heard evidence about a physical altercation between Mr Cooper Junior and the deceased, however Mr Justice Meenan said he could not see how this would be a basis for making a claim of undue influence.

On 12 March 2011, a solicitor attended the deceased in hospital, where he found him to be in a condition unfit to give instructions for the drawing up of a will. Thereafter, Mr Cooper Junior’s father arranged for another solicitor to attend with the deceased. Mr Justice Meenan said that the arrangements made by Mr Cooper Junior’s parents to enable the deceased to draw up his will could not be considered acts of undue influence.

Mr Justice Meenan concluded that “the evidence given by the plaintiffs fell considerably short of establishing any claim that the will …was the product of undue influence”.

Testamentary capacity

Mr Justice Meenan accepted that the deceased did not have the requisite mental capacity to draw up a will on 12 March 2011, however, Mr Justice Meenan was satisfied that the solicitor who attended the deceased on the 15 March 2011 to draw up the will “was fully aware of the legal requirement that the deceased have testamentary capacity and … acted professionally in reaching his conclusion that the deceased did have such capacity”.

Mr Justice Meenan said there were two issues which may indicate lack of testamentary capacity:

  1. He gave an inaccurate answer to the size of his property in acres.
  2. His signature could only be described as a scrawl or a scribble.

Given how central the property was to the life of the deceased, Mr Justice Meenan said this was an important error. However, given the accuracy of the other information provided to the solicitor, Mr Justice Meenan said he did not believe this mistake was of such an order as to establish a lack of testamentary capacity.

Mr Justice Meenan was also satisfied that the signature was explained by the solicitor as being a result of the deceased being physically weak and writing while on his back with the document being held above him.

Considering medical evidence, Mr Justice Meenan was satisfied that the levels of OxyContin in the deceased’s blood system on the 15 March 2011 were low and did not adversely affect his testamentary capacity.

Furthermore, given the enormous importance the deceased attached to the property, it was submitted that the deceased would not have wanted the breaking up of the property. As such, Mr Justice Meenan was satisfied that it was logical and rational for the deceased to have bequeathed it to one family member, and since Mr Cooper Junior had more involvement in agricultural matters than other family members, it was rational that he be the chose one to inherit the farm.

In all the circumstances, Mr Justice Meenan reversed the decision of the Circuit Court. 

  • by Seosamh Gráinséir for Irish Legal News

© Irish Legal News Ltd 2019



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