Will Validity Disputes in Western Australia (WA)

Why would someone contest a will’s validity in Western Australia?

In another blog post on will disputes, we discussed how Wills could be contested in Western Australia under the Family Provision Act 1972 (WA).

It is also important to understand that Wills can also be disputed in terms of their validity.

The legal principles which surround contesting the validity of a Will can be difficult to understand. Below we summarise some of these principles to assist with that understanding. Note, when referring to someone who has died and left a will we refer to them as the ‘testator’.

Generally speaking, a will won’t be admitted to Probate unless:

  1. it is duly executed, meaning:
    1. that it is in writing;
    2. the testator (or some other person in accordance with section 8 of the Wills Act 1970 (WA)); signs the will in the presence of at least 2 witnesses present at the same time; and
    3. the testator (or some other person in accordance with section 8 of the Wills Act 1970 (WA)); signs the will in the presence of at least 2 witnesses present at the same time; and
    4. the witnesses attest and subscribe the will in the presence of the testator.
  2. the testator had testamentary capacity (sometimes referred to as ‘sound mind, memory and understanding).

    The question of whether a testator had testamentary capacity is a legal question, not a medical one (although medical evidence is frequently tendered to assist the court to make a determination).

    The test for whether or not a person has testamentary capacity was established by Cockburn C J in Banks v Goodfellow (1870) LR 5 QB 549 as being the ability of the testator to:
    1. understand the nature of the act of making a will and its effects;
    2. to understand the extent of the property the subject of the will;
    3. to understand competing claims on his or her bounty, and to weigh those claims;
    4. not be afflicted by ‘disorders of the mind’.
  3. the testator knew and approved of its contents;

    This is primarily concerned with the intention of the testator to make the particular instrument concerned as his or her will. It is sufficient that a testator knows that the document is his or her will and correctly assumes how it deals with his or her property (Dal Pont and Mackie, Law of Succession (2nd ed), paragraph [2.27], cited with approval by Justice Lindsay, ‘the “Why?” and “What?” of “Suspicious Circumstances” in Probate Litigation’ (Conference Paper, the Law Society of South Australia Succession Conference, 16 November 2018).

    If a will is duly executed and the testator had testamentary capacity, then there is a presumption that the testator knew and approved the terms of the will at the time of execution.

A person seeking to disprove a will may claim that the testator did not have the testamentary capacity or that he or she lacked knowledge of the terms of the will and the ability to approve the will.

In addition to claims of a lack of testamentary capacity or knowledge and approval, there may be other arguments available to those seeking to invalidate a will, including:

  1. Undue Influence

    Undue Influence in probate litigation means that the testator has been actually coerced into doing what he or she did not desire to do (Tobin v Ezekiel [2012] NSECA 285; 83 NSWLR 757 at [49]). Actual undue influence must be proved. That is proof of actual coercive conduct which vitiates the free will of the testator, as opposed to undue influence found in the equity jurisdiction.  

    Undue Influence is a serious allegation and ought not to be raised except on very good grounds (Mortimer on Probate (1911)).

  2. Fraud

    In comparison to undue influence, where the testator is ‘coerced’, fraud is said to ‘mislead’ the testator. In Lindsay’s J article cited above, he provided the following description:

“As recognised in [Trustee for the Salvation Army (NSW) Property Trust v Becker [2007] NSWCA 136 at [65]-[66]] an example of conduct capable of constituting fraud is misleading or deceptive conduct involving wilfully false statements, or the is misleading or deceptive conduct involving wilfully false statements, or the suppression of material facts, intended either to gain for oneself benefits under a will or to prevent benefits being received by a natural object of the testator’s bounty.”

The above is merely a short summary of complex principles that have a long history of legal argument. No two cases are ever the same, so if you have queries about any of the above matters then you should obtain legal advice. 

How long do I have to raise a validity dispute over a Will Western Australia?

Unlike the Family Provision Act 1972 (WA) there is no statutory time limit imposed on raising a dispute over a will’s validity. However one should be mindful to take legal advice as soon as possible if you believe a will may be invalid. The advice and path forward will depend upon the facts of each case, for example, whether or not probate has been granted of the will yet.

Who can challenge a will’s validity in Western Australia?

There is no list of ‘eligible persons’ who can contest a will’s validity (as opposed to those entitled to make a claim for further provision of an estate under the Family Provision Act 1972 (WA)).  

However, when considering whether one should contest the validity of a will, a person should consider the extent of evidence they have (or is available to them) to prove that a will is invalid and whether there is a cost-benefit to them in litigating that factor.

For example, if you were a beneficiary under the terms of a previous will and are concerned that a beneficiary of a newer will has procured the drafting and execution of that will then you may want to consider obtaining legal advice to discuss whether contesting the will’s validity would be beneficial on a cost-benefit analysis.

Is it expensive to dispute a will’s validity in Western Australia?

It can be. This area of law is complex.

Litigants and potential litigants will benefit from obtaining advice from an experienced succession lawyer as early as possible after the death of the testator.

The experienced family lawyers at HFM Legal regularly advise clients with respect to will disputes and assist clients with all other aspects of wills and estate planning and will disputes.