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Court rules will written in Wetherspoons is invalid

A taxi-driver is facing £50,000 in legal fees after a will written by one of his regular passengers, which names him as beneficiary, has been ruled invalid by the court. Lodders’ Caroline Walford Cowley, a contentious probate specialist, says the case highlights the risk of creating a will without professional help as well as the factors affecting their validity.

57-year-old Gary Mendez’s handwritten will was deemed invalid by a judge, after learning that it had been written and signed over a drink at a local Wetherspoons pub.

In a previous will, Mr Mendez had left his assets to his partner, Hermes Rodriguez. But the new document, written three years later in 2016, completely cut him from the will, instead leaving Mr Mendez’s £160,000 Eastbourne home to his taxi driver, 34-year-old Dean Hughes.

Background

Mendez had severe health problems, was morbidly obese, a heavy drinker and had previously suffered a stroke. His long-term partner Rodriguez had given up his job and moved halfway across the world to be with Mendez, providing care for him as his health deteriorated.

Hughes became the only taxi driver willing to transport Mendez due to his 25-stone weight, and the two developed a friendship.

The verdict

While the Court dismissed claims that Hughes had forged the will or applied ‘undue pressure’ on Mendez, it deemed it invalid on the grounds that Mendez lacked mental capacity because of his deteriorating health, but also as it was very likely he had been drinking on the day the will was witnessed.

Hughes admitted to the Court that an alcoholic drink had been purchased and was on the table when Mendez signed the will.

Judge David Eaton Turner concluded that, due to Mendez’s health ailments and alcoholism, he was ‘no longer able to comprehend’ the consequences of his actions and had lost sight of his previous promise to leave the house to his partner, Rodriguez.

He directed the house to be transferred to Rodriguez and ordered Hughes to pay 85 per cent of the lawyers’ fees. Hughes now faces legal costs of up to £50,000.

Considering capacity

If Mendez and Hughes had used a solicitor when drawing up the will, this lengthy court dispute could well have been avoided. Solicitors cannot represent a client who does not have the necessary capacity. Using basic questions and observations, an experienced solicitor can spot any warning signs which make them cautious as to the client’s capacity.

 

The questions a solicitor will ask would include:
1. Has the client exhibited any symptoms such as memory loss, problems with communicating, a lack of mental flexibility or disorientation problems that could be ‘red flags’ for other underlying problems?
2. Are there extenuating factors that need to be taken into account? For instance, has the client recently suffered a grievance, or are they under a lot of stress? Their educational and environmental background will sometimes also need to be considered.
3. Does the client understand the consequences of their actions? Do they have a moral sense of what they are planning to do?

The answers to all these questions will determine the solicitors next steps. Sometimes, the solution can be as simple as explaining things in a more straightforward way. It could be that the solicitor decides to temporarily defer taking action until the client is in a position to make valid decisions. Or, if the situation is a permanent one, it could be that they need to turn to a client’s appointed lasting power of attorney.

Contributory factors

Mendez was a heavy drinker, and the fact that alcohol was present at the time the will was written was a contributing factor to it being ruled invalid.

The issue of being under the influence of alcohol was also a key factor in the case of Edkins v Hopkins & Ors [2016], where Philip Hopkins’ will was contested on the grounds that he lacked the mental capacity due to his alcoholism. However, in this case, as an experienced solicitor was involved in the drawing up and execution of the will and made extensive attendance notes which confirmed Mr Hopkins understood what he was doing, the judge found that his will should stand.

The case of Mendez’s will illustrates the significance of a testator’s mental capacity on the validity of their will. It also highlights the importance of seeking professional help when creating a will.

More information

To find out more about Lodders’ Dispute Resolution services, please speak to a member of our Disputed Wills and Estates team today. Or, for help with making or updating a will, please get in touch with a member of our Private Client team on 01789 293259 or click here to email us.

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Get in touch

For more information, please contact Caroline Walford Cowley, on 01242 229090, or via email.