Watts Fair – and what’s legal.

Watts Fair – and what’s legal.

The Inheritance Act Claim –v- the forgery

Watts-v- Watts [2014] EWHC 668 (Ch)

It’s been in the news recently – the Daily Mail and the Telegraph making reference to a daughter challenging her mother’s will so that she could receive a benefit – because the daughter was not working and her brother (who got everything under that will) alleging that she was waiting for her mother to die so she could pay off her debts.  Christine Watts, (according to her brother’s barrister) has “done nothing to get a job” since 2005 because she expected to be rescued by a share of her mother’s £200,000 estate.

It sounds like another case of a hardworking son who did everything for his Mum, staying by her bedside through to the bitter end – and a daughter who was workshy – and just waiting for Mum to die, and not putting in the effort to get a job or to visit her mum.

One side of the argument is that Valerie should have made a will leaving something to Christine – the other side of the argument is that the 2011 will is a forgery:  that it was not signed by Valerie, but by Christine’s brother Gary, who thought he was entitled to have something, and that the witnesses were either lying or duped into signing something that was not a will, and not in Valerie’s presence.

However, reading the judgment of the case reveals that it is not as simple as this: what emerges is a story of considerable sadness, combined with a certain amount of greed and a casual approach to the law.  It also transpires that the “deserving” son was in fact also receiving benefits – the judgment reports: Gary freely admitted to working only 16 hours per week ‘because’ that was the most he could do without losing his benefits

Mrs Valerie Watts (Valerie) had adopted two children – a daughter (Christine) and a son (Gary).  She had made a will in 2009 and another will in 2011.  In her 2009 will, she left her assets to be divided equally between the two.  By 2011 she was very ill with terminal cancer.  She made a will on her deathbed, leaving everything to Gary.  The judge observed that Gary was, indeed, an attentive son, being present at the bedside.

Reading the judgment, the reader is transported back to the scene in the hospital and the way that it was described in court some years later.  It appears that Valerie’s sister, Yvonne was asked to get a will from WH Smith and wrote the will for Valerie.  Yvonne received nothing under the will and was one of the witnesses.  Somewhere along the line, it was realised that Gary could not be a witness as well, and he went out to the nurses’ station and coerced one of the nurses into the room.  Although the nurse made it clear that she was unable to witness wills or official documents, as she was not permitted to under the terms of her employment, she was assured that she would not get into trouble.  She was not told that it was a will.

At no point whilst she was in the room did Valerie say anything at all, being in a drowsy state, capable of being roused if someone needed to speak to her. She was very clear that she did not witness Valerie sign the will or any document, but she did see Gary sign the document. She did not read the document before signing it. After Nurse Brown signed the document Gary thanked her and she left. She did not see Yvonne sign the document.

It is on the basis of who is most believable that the judgment of this case hangs –  Are the formalities of the will signing complied with? – ie, did Valerie sign this will?  The judge thought not, on the balance of what she heard.

I prefer Nurse Brown’s evidence to that of Gary on the question of what he told her at the nurses’ station. I accept that he did not ask her to come and witness his mum’s signature. I accept that he invited her into the room by saying that his mum needed something. Nurse Brown was not told that she was witnessing a will by Gary or, I find, by Yvonne. As a matter of law, this does not matter: Smith v Smith (1869) LR 1 P&D 143. I find that she did express her inability to sign any official document to Gary and Yvonne in Valerie’s room, and that she was reassured by Gary that what she was signing would not get her into any trouble. That is why she signed it. She was misled by Gary. Had she been told it was a will she would not have signed it, being a conscientious professional who would not knowingly disobey this important rule laid down by her employer. I find that she did not realise that it was a will until Gary visited her in St Thomas’ in October or November 2011. That visit was an attempt by Gary to influence what Nurse Brown would say

And then ruled that the earlier will would stand.

I have taken into account that it is entirely possible that on 12th January 2011 Valerie might well have wanted to change her will to cut out Christine. If that were indeed the case it is clearto me that neither Gary nor Yvonne would then have discouraged her, as in my judgment Gary had developed a sense of entitlement which he displayed in the witness box and Yvonne, who never got on with Christine, shared his view. Nor do I have to decide whether Valerie could not, at the last moment, bring herself to complete the act of cutting out her daughter or was physically too weak to sign. The decision which I have come to is primarily based on my assessment of the evidence given by the three witnesses of fact, and has taken into account my views of the respective strengths of the opinion evidence given by the expert witnesses.

There are two sides to most stories – and unlike the media, the judge was not impressed by the story of the son, to the extent that it would overlook forgery.  The court was sensitive to the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter and to the daughter’s very real medical issues, not drawing the inference suggested by the media reporting during the trial.

This case, far from being about a grasping daughter who did little for her mother but waiting for her to die, is all about the actual legal formalities of signing a will and why they are there and need to be complied with – the real reason why there are two witnesses.

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