Law firms focused on ensuring their clients' peace of mind generally provide secure storage facilities for their important documents. A High Court inheritance dispute triggered by a landowner's missing will underlined the risks of keeping such documents at home where they can all too easily be mislaid.
Less than five years before his premature death from a brain tumour, the landowner signed a professionally drafted will by which he left the bulk of his estate to a close friend. Something of a hoarder, he chose to keep the original document at his home, where his filing arrangements were chaotic. Despite a careful search following his death, only a copy of the will could be found. The friend subsequently launched proceedings with a view to having the copy admitted to probate.
The landowner's sister resisted the claim, contending that he had intentionally destroyed the original will, thereby revoking it. Given that he had custody of the document when he died, there was a legal presumption that he had done just that. On the basis that he had no valid will in place when he died, she argued that she should inherit the entirety of his estate as his next of kin.
Upholding the friend's claim, however, the Court noted that there was no dispute that the landowner had the mental capacity required to make the will, which was validly executed. There was no evidence about what he might have done with the original will, which had not been located amidst the general documentary mess he left behind him.
In giving little weight to the presumption that he had destroyed the missing will, the Court noted that he had been estranged from his sister for some years prior to his death. He specifically stated in the will that he was making no provision for her because he disapproved of the way she had treated him. There was no evidence of a rapprochement between them before he died.
His friend helped care for him during his final illness and their close bond persisted until the end. The Court found that he had a continuing intention to make his friend his principal heir. He made that intention plain to his friend and others and there was no evidence of any weight that he subsequently changed his mind. Overall, the evidence that he had not intentionally destroyed the original will was overwhelming.