The ins and outs of will disputes often resemble the plot of an Agatha Christie novel and require judges to fully deploy their little grey cells in uncovering the truth. That was certainly so in a case concerning the surprise discovery of a purported will more than 10 years after a young man was accidentally hit and killed by a train.
Following the man’s death, his mother was appointed personal representative of his estate and was required to distribute his assets to his next of kin on the basis that he had died without making a will. More than a decade passed before the man’s uncle by marriage launched proceedings on the basis that he had recently discovered a will that bore a date almost nine years prior to the man’s death.
The mother asserted that the will was a forgery that had been created after her son’s death. She pointed out that the document had not been signed by her son but by a convicted fraudster who purported to have done so as her son’s attorney and who had since died. There were said to be telling signifiers of forgery, including a number of irregularities and spelling mistakes on the face of the will.
Following a hearing, however, a judge ruled that the will was valid. The mother was removed from office as personal representative and a professional was appointed to serve in her place. He was tasked with distributing the man’s estate in accordance with the will, which made certain specific bequests to individuals.
Upholding the mother’s appeal against that outcome, the High Court noted that the judge was entitled to base his decision on his assessment of the credibility or otherwise of witnesses who testified in the case. However, it was not possible to discern from his judgment how he had reached such assessments and why he had rejected certain evidence, including agreed expert evidence. With considerable regret, given the mounting costs of the dispute, the Court ordered a retrial of the matter.