To quote To Kill a Mockingbird “you can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family.”
Lucky are us that see the passing of a beloved family member with mourning, remembrance and perhaps a few too many tipples as we band together to recall times of old.
Unfortunately, many of us are born into family where relationships are strained and death, wills and estates see siblings pitted against each other in court.
In March this year, one UK family occupied media headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Valerie Watts, 71, had died in 2011 from cancer.
In the days following her death it had emerged she had made a last-minute amendment to her will, leaving her entire £200,000 estate to her son.
What was to unravel over the next three years was a story of forged wills and false witnesses. A story so English it reads like a modern day Agatha Christie novel.
Gary Watts, 44, was a man who believed he’d worked hard to earn the full takings of his deceased mother’s lofty estate.
He and his barrister insisted his mother had decided to leave the full proceeds of her estate to him, rather than splitting it evenly between him and his sister, 47-year-old Christine Watts.
Both children were adopted by Valerie and her then-husband Leonard from a children’s home between the period of 1967 and 1970.
Christine, his barrister argued was ‘ too lazy’ to work. She’d relied on benefits and the financial assistance of her late mother since leaving her work as an underwriter. She claimed psychological issues and back problems had forced her out of the workforce and denied waiting around for her mother’s death to rescue her from financial destitution.
Mr Watts told the courts their mother first wanted to cut Christine out of the will back in 2006. He’d persuaded her not to. But on her deathbed in 2011, it was her ‘final wish’ that Christine be struck out because ‘she was disappointed with her not showing any concern for her, not coming up and visiting her.’
Mr Watts had the full support of Valerie’s sister Yvonne, who claimed her sister died ‘heartbroken’ because of Christine’s failure to extend affection to her mother.
Salacious headlines in the Brit press regaled the story of the siblings’ legal battle.
The case unfurled from family battle to deathbed intrigue when witness nurse Jackie Brown gave her testimony.
Brown says she was tricked by Mr Watts into signing the document, saying that she never knew that it was a will and that she never saw Valerie sign it as required by law. ‘Gary signed it, not Valerie,’ said Judge Catherine Newman QC, ‘and he simulated his mother’s signature on it.’
‘His view was that he had got what he deserved, and so had Christine, and he did not think that she deserved to get anything from their mother’s estate,’ Judge Newman continued. She also stipulated that that Valerie’s sister Yvonne’s testimony was ‘unreliable’ and filled with ‘animosity’.
The courts ruled in favour of Christine Watts, dividing Valerie’s estate evenly between the two siblings.
So how did the sister successfully contest the forged will?
A will can be contested because the contestant believes that the will is not the true will of the testator.
In clearer words, when it doesn’t represent the accurate intent of the person who made the will to pass their estate onto the correct people.
There are a many factors that determine if a will doesn’t accurately represent the creators intentions.
One is testamentary capacity which means that the will’s author knows exactly what he or she is doing and have the right mental capacity when writing the document up.
Another example is Undue Influence.
Otherwise known as when a testator is so dominated and controlled by another that they can’t make the will the way they want and instead adheres to the person dominating them.
If a will is successfully contested and there are no prior wills then the court will distribute the estate to family members evenly.
Have you had battle family members in family court? What was the outcome?