Leonard v Leonard: a testamentary incapacity landmark ruling from High Court

In a significant decision for contested probate and will challenges, Mrs Justice Joanna Smith DBE in High Court has provided valuable guidance on assessing testamentary capacity in her judgment in Leonard v Leonard. This case is essential reading for anyone concerned about the validity of a loved one’s will, as it offers a comprehensive framework for bringing incapacity claims.

The dispute centred on the last will of Dr Jack Leonard, signed in October 2015 at age 83 without professional supervision. Dr Leonard’s children from his first marriage argued he lacked testamentary capacity when making this will, which left a substantial portion of his estate to his second wife and her family. They sought to propound an earlier 2007 will that was more favourable to them.

In a detailed analysis, Mrs Justice Joanna Smith DBE applied the long-standing Banks v Goodfellow test for testamentary capacity. The court carefully examined evidence of Dr Leonard’s age-related cognitive decline and dementia diagnosis leading up to the 2015 will. Key facts included his growing confusion around the complex will-drafting process and his inability to understand the effect of specific provisions.

Notably, the court gave little weight to the will-drafter’s opinion that Dr Leonard had capacity, as she failed to take proper precautions, such as following the “Golden Rule” of involving a medical practitioner to assess capacity for an elderly testator. The solicitor also did not meet with Dr Leonard for almost a year before he signed the will.

Ultimately, considering all the evidence, the court found Dr Leonard lacked testamentary capacity in October 2015. He did not fully understand the nature and effects of the will, including a hotchpot clause relating to a US property that created uncertainty around his intentions to provide for his son. The will also lacked rational provision for his financially dependent son, evidencing that Dr Leonard’s dementia had “poisoned his affections and perverted his sense of right”.

The ruling in Leonard v Leonard also helpfully clarified that the “rule in Parker v Felgate”, where instructions given with capacity can remain valid even if capacity is lost before signing, will only apply in limited circumstances. The will must accurately give effect to the testator’s capacitous intentions, which the 2015 will failed to do.

This case provides vital lessons for anyone wishing to challenge a will based on incapacity. It emphasises the importance of assessing capacity in light of the specific will’s complexity – more sophisticated wills require a higher degree of understanding. It also demonstrates the court’s willingness to weigh all relevant evidence, especially the testator’s medical history and the practical realities of their engagement in the will-making process, to determine if they truly understood what they were doing.

At C-PAID, we have extensive experience helping clients navigate contested probate matters, including issues of testamentary capacity. Our team draws on a network of top legal talent to assess the merits of each case and pursue will challenges on a No Win No Fee basis. We understand the emotional and financial toll of inheritance disputes and strive to secure our clients’ rightful entitlements.

Leonard v Leonard is a must-read decision that will likely impact many of our clients’ cases. Its detailed reasoning offers valuable support for contesting a will where there are genuine doubts about the testator’s capacity. If you are concerned about a loved one’s will and whether they fully understood its implications, we encourage you to contact our specialist team for a free, no-obligation discussion of your circumstances. With our expertise and determined approach, we will work tirelessly to protect your interests and achieve the best possible outcome.

The key lessons from Leonard v Leonard are clear – testamentary capacity claims require careful scrutiny of all relevant factors, with a focus on the testator’s ability to comprehend the specific will at hand. Armed with this ruling, individuals concerned about an unfair or irrational will have renewed scope to pursue justice. C-PAID is here to guide you through this complex legal landscape and ensure no rightful beneficiary is left behind due to incapacity. Get in touch today to learn more.