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Determining undue influence in Rea v Rea in the Court of Appeal

AuthorsGeorgina Vokes

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The Court of Appeal has overturned a High Court decision made in August 2023 in the case of Rea v Rea.

Here, Contentious Trusts and Probate Solicitor Georgina Vokes examines undue influence in Rea v Rea [2024] EWCA Civ 169.


Did Anna Rea have testamentary capacity when she wrote her Will? 

The appeal concerns the validity of a Will made on 7 December 2015 (the 2015 Will) by Anna Rea (the deceased). Anna died in the following year on 26 July 2016, aged 85. Her four children survived her. The 2015 Will gave the most valuable asset in the deceased’s estate — her house — to her daughter Rita Rea (the claimant) who had been the deceased’s main carer since 2009. The deceased’s other three children (the defendants) were each to receive only a quarter of the share of the residue.

The claimant applied for probate, however, the defendants then issued a claim challenging the validity of the 2015 Will, alleging that the deceased lacked testamentary capacity. They also suggested that the deceased had not known and approved the Will’s contents, that the claimant had applied undue influence over the deceased and that the Will was invalid by reason of fraudulent calumny. The defendants sought orders pronouncing against the 2015 Will and in favour of a prior Will that was made in 1986.

There then followed a complex series of litigation, starting with a three-day trial in the High Court (EWHC) in 2019 that determined that the 2015 Will was valid and should be admitted to probate. In 2021, the defendants appealed that finding but lost again in the EWHC. However, they appealed again in the Court of Appeal (EWCA) in 2022 which was successful. 


Was undue influence a factor? 

The matter returned to the EWHC in July 2023. At that hearing, the Judge dismissed the defendant’s claims based on lack of testamentary capacity, lack of knowledge and approval or fraudulent calumny. However, he ruled that the undue influence claim had been made out. He determined that the claimant was an unreliable witness to the 2015 Will who had given untruthful evidence about the circumstances in which the 2015 Will came to be made.

The claimant then appealed to the EWCA. It was acknowledged that the claimant ‘may have an argumentative and forceful personality, and [a] forceful physical presence' and had reason to seek to secure the property for herself. Nonetheless, it was also decided that the deceased had testamentary capacity and knew and approved of the terms of the 2015 Will. The EWCA found that there was no direct evidence of coercion and professionals with relevant expertise confirmed that the deceased had consistently expressed her wish to leave the house to the claimant.

The EWCA established that the EWHC mistakenly found there to have been undue influence and the evidence provided did not entitle it to arrive at that conclusion. The EWCA ordered that the 2015 Will be admitted to probate.


How does this decision impact undue influence allegations?

This decision makes it more difficult for disappointed beneficiaries to prove undue influence in such cases and there may be a presumption that there is no undue influence even if a beneficiary has persuaded a relative to change the terms of their Will. There is a requirement for the beneficiary to act coercively, not just persuasively. The burden of proof lies with the person alleging undue influence, which must be established on the balance of probabilities. This decision reiterates the principles established in previous case authority.


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Georgina Vokes

Georgina is a Solicitor in our litigation team.

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Georgina Vokes

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