fraudulent calumny

Landmark ruling on £1m inheritance case

In a very unusual case, which is only the third court ruling of its kind in the UK since 2007, a  Will has been held as invalid on the grounds that it was obtained fraudulently and through undue influence known as ‘fraudulent calumny’.

This unusual and landmark ruling heard in Bristol High Court in April 2022, saw a sister hide her father’s death and with it a £1m inheritance of antiques and classic cars from her brother.  The attempted fraud saw sister Sonia Whittle turn father Gerald  Whittle against his son, David Whittle, shortly before his death and the Judge in the case described it as “disgraceful” and “appalling” attempts to cut the rightful beneficiary out of the  Will.

Gerald Whittle, 92, died in 2016 just three weeks after executing his Will. He had two children, Sonia and David Whittle, appointing Sonia and her partner, Ray Spicer, as executors.  Apart from a bequest to David of Gerald’s old cars, the entire estate, valued at approximately £1m was left to Sonia and Ray.

To take instructions for drafting the Will, Gerald’s solicitors unfortunately sent a trainee legal executive to his house.  Sonia told the legal executive that David and his wife Julie were “psychopaths and criminals” who had stolen large sums of money from Julie’s mother.

Sonia also said that David had been looking for Gerald’s bank details whilst he had been in hospital, that he had stolen Gerald’s antiques and his classic cars, and that David and Julie had forced their way into Gerald’s house and the police had issued a harassment order against them.

In the month preceding Gerald’s death, David and Sonia visited Gerald in a care home. David overheard Sonia telling their father that he had stolen money from his mother-in-law and that he was a violent man who assaulted women.  When David confronted Sonia on these lies, she left the room, verbally abusing her brother.

The judge found that Sonia had knowingly “peddled falsehoods” about David and his wife and Sonia had unduly influenced her father to cut his son David out of his Will – a legal concept called  ‘fraudulent calumny’.

It was subsequently proved that the antiques Sonia alleged had been stolen by David, in fact had been sold by local auctioneers at Sonia’s instruction.  David had worked, until retirement, in a highly vetted position and Disclosure and Barring Service certificates proved that neither he nor his wife had ever been involved in any illegality.

David and Julie, were very close to Gerald, saw him very regularly and were central to his care in his later years.  Sonia sought to poison her brother’s relationship with their father and, furthermore, to cut contact between Gerald and David right at the very end, when Gerald was most vulnerable and most in need of his son’s love and care.

Sonia even refused to allow the medical authorities and social services to let David know when their father had died.  It was not until two months after Gerald’s death that David eventually found out – after much increasingly frantic searching and investigation.

Whilst these cases are rare it does remains too easy for certain individuals to unduly influence elderly and vulnerable people and if they succeed they are effectively denying the ‘true’ beneficiaries their rightful inheritance.

Fraud and undue influence typically takes place behind closed doors and is very difficult to prove to the standard necessary to overturn a Will.

To discuss your Will contact Alex Astley