Suspicious Minds – The Case of Veall and His Shotgun
Keith Veall was an expert marksman and live pigeon shooter, and he shared his fondness for shooting with his two grandsons, Nicholas and Oliver. A few years before Keith passed away, he presented his two prized Perazzi shotguns to Nicholas and Oliver – they were to be held by a close friend while the grandsons worked towards getting their own gun licenses.
In the weeks prior to Keith’s death, however, his will was suddenly changed to leave his prized shotguns not to Nicholas and Oliver, but to his son Rowland instead. Similarly, his recently changed will resulted in the bulk of his estate being given to Rowland – including an express reference to a parcel of shares which had already been sold.
Fearing suspicious circumstances, Keith’s daughter, and mother of Nicholas and Oliver, Kim, brought proceedings against her father’s estate, challenging the validity of her late father’s altered will.
A Quick Aside on Suspicious Circumstances
For the vast majority of people, and in the absence of suspicious circumstances, if a will-maker (‘testator’) has testamentary capacity and his or her will was properly executed, there is an assumption that the testator knew and approved of the contents of his or her will.
Where certain circumstances arouse the suspicion of the Court, an Executor of a will must demonstrate to the Court that the testator knew and approved of the contents of his or her will. Where suspicion is aroused, the standard of proof becomes much higher. All evidence provided to the Court is to be examined with “vigilant and jealous scrutiny”  and all efforts must be made to ensure that the satisfaction of the Court is not based on “inexact proofs, indefinite testimony, or indirect inferences” .
Kim Goes to Court
At trial, Kim was successful in invalidating the will by demonstrating that her father did not know of or approve of the contents of his will, however, she failed to prove to the Court that he lacked testamentary capacity.
Rowland would ultimately appeal this finding unsuccessfully, with the Court noting a number of examples of suspicious circumstances:
- When Keith made his last will, he was aged and infirm, declining both physically and mentally, very hard of hearing and was signing anything put in front of him.
- The final version of the will departed radically from previous versions, and in particular the change relating to the prized shotguns.
- The final version of the will conferred particular benefits on Rowland to the exclusion of Kim.
- The final version of the will included assets that had already been disposed of, and reflected different assets to those stated in a family law affidavit of financial position sworn only days earlier.
An important further note to make is that the final version of Keith’s will was drawn up and executed by a well-regarded and competent solicitor. This ultimately proved to be an unpersuasive fact for Rowland in demonstrating the validity of the will – dispelling the notion that the fact that a will is prepared by a solicitor and then read over to a testator provides powerful evidence that it represents a testator’s intentions.
Some Final Thoughts
The case of Veall provides a great source of advice for people who sit on either side of the fence – whether they are seeking to challenge the validity of a claim, defending such a challenge, or even drafting a will. Where suspicions arise, particularly where these suspicions stem from a dramatic change to a testator’s will, it is important to ascertain and demonstrate that the testator both had testamentary capacity and that he/she knew and approved of the contents of the will. The absence of this proof can spell trouble for all involved.