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Appeal denied in Marley v Rawlings

A man disinherited by his adoptive parents when they each signed accidentally the other’s mirror will has had his appeal denied by the Court of Appeal. The ruling will come as a blow to many practitioners who had called for a more flexible approach to probate disputes.

3 February 2012

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‘The decision is disappointing,” said Matthew Duncan, private client partner at Kingsley Napley. “The courts seem unwilling to step outside the letter of law when judging highly emotive cases involving inheritance. It is obvious that the wills were signed in error and that the couple’s intentions were absolutely clear. This case cried out for a pragmatic decision but, sadly for Mr Marley, it was not to be.”

The case involved Mr and Mrs Rawlings who in 1999 made mirror wills each leaving their estate to one another. On the second death the wills stated that everything should go to Terry Marley, whom they treated as their own son and who was the couple’s sole carer. However, an administrative oversight meant that Mr and Mrs Rawlings signed each other’s will in error.

The discrepancy did not come to light until Mr Rawlings’ death in 2006 when his two sons noticed the mistake and argued that the will was therefore not valid.

Last year the High Court agreed, saying that it was not in its power to change the will, even though there was no doubt that the Rawlings had wanted Marley to inherit. It declared the wills invalid, ruling that the Rawlings had died intestate and that the sons should inherit the estate.

The Court of Appeal yesterday (2 February 2012) upheld the decision, one that Lady Justice Black, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, said she had “reached with great regret”.

Adam Draper, associate solicitor at Irwin Mitchell, said will writers should take heed of the decision. "The judgment in Marley v Rawlings makes it clear that, regardless of how clearly the deceased’s intentions are evidenced, the courts cannot interfere with the long-established rules on the requirements surrounding the execution of valid will.

"It also serves as a further warning to will writers that there really is no excuse for mistakes in the execution of a will - the courts do not have the power to correct errors such as that in Marley regardless of how glaring the error might be.  It will be interesting to see what further litigation may result from the error.”

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Wills, Trusts & Probate