Whether the pen truly is mightier than the sword is a topic best left to scholarly debate, but there can be little doubt that it is capable of wreaking havoc, as a recent dispute over the estate of a Biggin Hill couple amply demonstrates.
The facts of the case are simple enough – a husband and wife instructed a solicitor to make wills for them in identical terms (known as "mirror" wills), which he did, and the couple returned together to complete the formalities. So far, so good. What then occurred was a basic error which had serious consequences – the wills were mixed up and the husband ended up with the wife’s will to sign, and vice versa.
No one spotted the error and the couple proceeded to sign each other’s wills instead of their own. The wills were then put away. The wife died and everything went to the husband without needing to use her will. It was only on the death of the husband that the error was discovered.
There then followed 7 years of litigation, which was resolved only after a trip to the highest Court in the land, the Supreme Court, taking in the High Court and the Court of Appeal along the way.
The reason why the error was important is that the couple wanted to leave everything to a man whom they treated as their son, but was not a relative at all. They had 2 adult children of their own, from whom they were estranged, and who stood to inherit their estate under the law of intestacy if the husband’s will was held to be ineffective.
The end result was that the will was upheld and the intended beneficiary did inherit the estate as the couple had planned, but this was in no way a foregone conclusion – he had already lost at the original trial of the case and in the Court of Appeal.
7 years of stressful and no doubt very expensive litigation, all down to that mighty pen!
This unfortunate case underlines the crucial importance of always checking important documents carefully before signing. In the case of a will, to do anything less may well be storing up serious problems for the very person you are looking to benefit.