Too many wills leads to inheritance dispute over home

Published 09 Jun 2015

Writing a will is a crucial part of estate planning, as it informs family and friends of your last wishes upon death. Failing to leave a will often creates problems, and assets may not be distributed as you’d hoped when you die.

However, producing too many wills can also be an issue, particularly when the deceased frequently changes the beneficiaries and amounts left to each person. This is what recently occurred in a case heard by the NSW Supreme Court.

The testator, an 85-year-old man, wrote five wills between 2009 and 2012, leaving his $4.34 million estate to dozens of beneficiaries. In addition, two documents entitled Guide and Screed were found among his important files that offered further suggestions and changes to his existing wills.

An inheritance dispute arose when the estate executor, the plaintiff, argued the Guide and Screed were intended to be official amendments to the deceased’s most recent 2012 will. Notably, these documents named the executor, a long-standing family friend, as the beneficiary of the man’s house.

Two sisters, who were also friends of the deceased, contested the plaintiff’s claims and were the defendants in the case. They stated there was evidence suggesting the 2012 will had been written after the Guide and the Screed, making the latter documents redundant.

Inheritance dispute decision

According to the 2012 will, the deceased left the plaintiff $100,000 cash, 5 per cent of all his shareholdings and a proportion of the estate balance. The sisters were due to receive 4 per cent of shareholdings between them and a share of the estate balance. One sibling was also gifted $150,000.

If the Guide and Screed were ruled to be codicils of the latest will, the executor would also receive the man’s property. Otherwise, it was scheduled for sale and the proceedings distributed as part of the estate. The sisters would also have had their 4 per cent shareholdings revoked.

The primary issue was whether the two amendment documents were written before or after the final will was produced. Justice Patricia Bergin considered statements from both sides, but ultimately ruled in favour of the defendants.

One of the most convincing pieces of evidence was that multiple company shares the deceased had left to beneficiaries in the Guide and Screed had already been sold before he wrote the 2012 will. Justice Bergin therefore dismissed the plaintiff’s summons and made orders granting probate according to the deceased’s last official will.

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