Terminally Ill Woman's Marriage Triggers High Court Inheritance Dispute

It is quite common for people to get married in the knowledge that they only have a short while to live. However, as a High Court ruling underlined, such a step is often fraught with legal difficulty in terms of inheritance and should never be taken without legal advice.

The case concerned a woman who was fully aware that she was terminally ill. Her assets in England and abroad were worth about £10 million. She was being cared for in a hospice when, a few days prior to her death, she made a will with the help of a priest and a man who was described on her admission papers as her close friend and next of kin. She executed the document without having received professional legal advice from a solicitor.

By the will, she left around one sixth of her estate to the friend, bequeathing most of the balance to her sister and members of her family. However, on the same day that she signed the document, she and the friend were married in a religious ceremony. That was followed soon afterwards by a civil ceremony at which her sister served as a witness. Three days later, she died.

The friend subsequently launched proceedings, asserting that the marriage had the effect of revoking the will and that she therefore died intestate. As her husband and next of kin, he asserted that he was thus entitled to inherit the entirety of her estate. His claim was resisted by the sister, but he applied for summary judgment on the basis that her defence had no real prospect of succeeding.

Ruling on the matter, the Court noted the general rule contained in Section 18 of the Wills Act 1837 that, when a couple get married, any previous wills either of them have made are automatically revoked. That provision does not require them to have any intention to revoke their wills or even to be aware of the rule's existence.

In rejecting the friend's application, however, the Court found that the sister had a real prospect of establishing that the woman made her will in anticipation of her forthcoming marriage. If it could be shown that she intended her will to survive her nuptials, an exception to the general rule would apply. Some, but not all, other aspects of the sister's defence were also viable and the Court found that the matter could only be resolved fairly following a full trial on the merits.