Earlier this year, the High Court’s decision in Gupta v Gupta and others provided an interesting example of a testatrix having the requisite “knowledge and approval” when making her Will even though she had a limited understanding of English. It also discussed her husband’s “dominance” and whether this amounted to undue influence when her Will was made.
The deceased, Urmila Gupta, died on 25 February 2014. Her husband, Laxmi Gupta, had predeceased her (in April 2009).
Urmila and Laxmi had moved to England from India in 1957. They established a successful business in North London where they also bought commercial and residential properties.
They had two sons: Rakesh (the claimant) and Naresh, and a daughter, Sashi.
In November 1998 Laxmi and Urmila created “mirror Wills” (i.e. Wills with identical provisions) stipulating that on the surviving spouse’s death the estate would be divided between their three children, with Naresh receiving a far greater share than his other siblings.
On his mother’s death, Rakesh, the eldest son, contended that Urmila’s Will was invalid on the grounds that she lacked the requisite knowledge and approval of her Will. Rakesh highlighted four key “suspicious circumstances”:
1. Laxmi’s dominance over Urmila: Rakesh argued that his mother had been dominated by Laxmi who saw himself as the head of a traditional, male-centred family.
2. Urmila’s limited ability to understand English: Rakesh argued that Urmila could not have understood the contents of her Will as she spoke and understood very limited English.
3. Urmila’s physical and mental illnesses: Urmila suffered from poor health, including dementia in her later years, obesity and deafness which it was suggested impacted her ability to understand and approve her Will.
4. The absence of any reason as to why Urmila would divide her estate unequally: Urmila had no reason to favour her second son over her other children and there had been no fallings out in the family.
The approach taken by the court
In his judgment, Deputy Judge Hollander QC followed the court’s approach in Gill v Woodall  to the question of knowledge and approval and said the court must ask the following question:
Did the testatrix understand (a) what was in the Will when she signed it and (b) what the effect would be?
The court will therefore look at all of the relevant evidence to satisfy itself that the testatrix understood what she was doing when the Will was created. The court will also need to be satisfied that the testatrix knew the effect of the Will i.e. that she understood she was making a Will which dealt with the distribution of her estate in a particular way. However, it is not the court’s role to infer the intentions of the testatrix. If the Will does not produce the intended effect it is not for the court to try and second-guess what the testatrix intended.
The court can infer this knowledge and approval from proof of the testatrix’s testamentary capacity and proof that the Will was executed properly. In addition, the fact that a Will has been executed properly after being prepared by a solicitor, and read to the testatrix by the solicitor, raises a very strong presumption that it represents the testatrix’s intentions at the relevant time.
The judge therefore rejected the claim that Urmila did not have the requisite knowledge and approval of her Will. On the evidence provided, he was satisfied that Urmila was in sufficient health and had enough of an understanding of the English language to understand the contents of her Will.
The judge made some interesting statements such as, “A finding of knowledge and approval does not require that a testatrix has a lawyer’s grasp of technical language; it is sufficient if the solicitor has explained the meaning of the Will to her…”
And, so far as the allegation of dominance was concerned, although Laxmi was the head of the family, the judge was satisfied that Laxmi’s relationship with Urmila was a close and loving one and it was unlikely Laxmi would have failed to discuss the contents of Urmila’s Will with her. The judge said, “…the fact that one partner is accustomed to go along with the wishes of the other is not, in a case where there is no undue influence, a suspicious circumstance. On the contrary, it provides an explanation for the terms of the Will… It would be astonishing, in the context of the evidence I have heard as to their relationship, for Laxmi not to have discussed with Urmila the contents of their mirror Wills before their execution even if the driving force was Laxmi…”
The judge also noted that Urmila’s Indian Will made unequal provision for her children so the English Will was part of the same pattern.
So, Rakesh’s claim failed. Despite the embarrassment of losing and having questioned his mother’s understanding and having criticised his father, Rakesh applied for permission to appeal. The Court of Appeal refused permission so this should bring to an end another bitter inheritance dispute which has exposed family divisions and arrangements in a very public way. However, the judge’s statements are required reading to those making and defending these types of claims.
Davina Haydon is a partner in Stephens Scown’s highly regarded inheritance and trust disputes team. She is based in the St Austell office and can be contacted on 01726 74433 or via email on firstname.lastname@example.org