Rea v Rea – Court of Appeal overturns High Court’s finding of undue influence over 2015 will

The Court of Appeal has allowed an appeal against a High Court decision that a daughter, Rita Rea, had procured her elderly mother’s will through undue influence. The judgment in Rea v Rea [2024] EWCA Civ 169 provides important guidance on the high threshold required to prove undue influence in the context of contested wills and inheritance disputes.

The case concerned the validity of the last will made by Mrs Anna Rea in December 2015 at the age of 85. Under the 2015 will, Mrs Rea left her house to her daughter Rita, who had been her main carer for many years. Mrs Rea’s three sons, who were left only a share of residue, challenged the will on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity, want of knowledge and approval, undue influence and fraudulent calumny.

At first instance, the High Court Judge, HHJ Hodge KC, dismissed all the sons’ grounds of challenge except for undue influence. He found that the facts were “consistent only with Rita having procured the making and execution of the 2015 Will by the exercise of undue influence over her mother, which overpowered Anna’s volition without convincing her judgment.”

However, the Court of Appeal unanimously disagreed and overturned the undue influence finding. Giving the lead judgment, Newey LJ emphasised that undue influence in the context of wills requires coercion – influence which overpowers the testator’s own volition and judgment. He stressed that such coercion is inherently unlikely and that there must be solid evidence to justify such a finding. The other hypotheses – such as persuasion by a beneficiary or the testator acting of their own free will – will often be more probable explanations.

On the facts, Newey LJ concluded that “the evidence before the Judge was [not] capable of supporting a finding of undue influence.” Key factors included:

  • The evidence of Mrs Rea’s GP and the drafting solicitor, whom the Judge found to be reliable witnesses, that they saw no signs of coercion and Mrs Rea had consistently expressed her wish to leave the house to Rita.
  • The rational basis for Mrs Rea wanting to benefit Rita, who had cared for her devotedly for many years, compared to her sons who Mrs Rea felt had abandoned her.
  • The Judge’s finding that Mrs Rea had the necessary testamentary capacity and knew and approved the contents of the 2015 will. The fact she rejected some of Rita’s suggestions and changed her instructions in Rita’s absence showed her own free will was engaged.
  • The lack of any direct evidence of Rita’s coercion or control over her mother.
  • The inherent improbability of coercion as opposed to persuasion or a free choice by Mrs Rea.

Accordingly, the Court allowed the appeal and confirmed the validity of the 2015 will.

The judgment reinforces just how difficult it is to prove undue influence to overturn a will, even where the main beneficiary had a close and influential relationship with the vulnerable testator. Something more than a strong personality or motive to receive an inheritance is required – there must be positive evidence that the testator’s own free will was overborne by improper pressure.

Mere persuasion or encouragement is not enough, nor is the fact that the will may seem unfair to other family members.

At C-PAID, we regularly assist clients to navigate contested probate matters, including undue influence claims. This important Court of Appeal decision will likely impact many undue influence cases going forward. If you are concerned about a loved one’s will and whether they were subjected to undue pressure, please contact our specialist team for a free, no-obligation discussion. Our solicitors can advise on the merits of any potential claim and the evidence required to succeed, as well as pursuing matters through the courts on a No Win No Fee basis where appropriate. Call us on 0161 532 8111 or get in touch via our contact form today to see how we can help.