Court of Appeal Upholds Validity of Will in Rita Rea v Remo Rea & Ors Case, Rejecting Allegations of Undue Influence

Citation: [2024] EWCA Civ 169
Judgment on

Introduction

The case law of Rita Rea v Remo Rea & Ors revolves around the validity of a will executed by the late Anna Rea (referred to as Anna). The central issue was whether the will, dated 7 December 2015, was influenced by undue influence exerted by Rita Rea, Anna’s daughter. The Court of Appeal grappled with the distinction between legitimate persuasion and coercive undue influence in the context of will-making.

Key Facts

The appellant, Rita Rea, contested a High Court decision that held Anna’s 2015 Will invalid due to undue influence. Anna, at the time of her will’s creation, was elderly and suffered from various health conditions, leading her to be dependent on Rita, who had been her principal carer since 2009. Anna’s new will substantially deviated from her previous 1986 Will by bequeathing her primary asset, the house, to Rita while significantly disinheriting her sons.

The Court of Appeal provided a detailed analysis of undue influence in testamentary contexts. According to established case law, such as Parfitt v Lawless and Hall v Hall, undue influence is distinctly characterized by coercion. The key distinction is made between permissible influences — such as persuasion and appeals to affection or gratitude — and impermissible influences that overpower the testator’s free will, effectively coercing them into a decision they would not have made otherwise. In Wingrove v Wingrove, the concept of coercion was further explored, recognizing that undue influence can be subtle and that even a testator’s weak and feeble state can amplify the impact of seemingly minor pressure.

The burden of proof lies with the person alleging undue influence, which must be established on a balance of probabilities. The judgments in Home Secretary v Rehman and In re B (Children) underscored the civil standard of proof, whereby the tribunal determines if undue influence was more likely than not, with consideration given to the inherent probabilities based on circumstances.

The court also reviewed the function of professional involvement in testamentary matters. The involvement of a professional who takes instructions directly from the testator and witnesses their independent expression of intent can mitigate allegations of undue influence, as seen with the involvement of Mrs Sukul and Dr Qaiyum in the case at hand.

Outcomes

Upon reviewing the factors cited by the High Court Judge, the Court of Appeal found that the evidence presented did not substantiate a finding of undue influence. The perceived inconsistencies in Rita’s evidence and the timing of the will’s creation were not exclusively consistent with undue influence and could denote mere persuasion, especially since Anna had testamentary capacity and her rational motivations for favoring Rita were clear.

The appellate court emphasized that the Judge at first instance had not given appropriate weight to the evidence of reliable witnesses such as Mrs Sukul and Dr Qaiyum, who both testified to Anna’s clear and consistent expression of her wishes to favor Rita in her 2015 Will. The appellate court concluded that the Judge’s finding of undue influence was mistaken and upheld the validity of the 2015 Will based on the lack of evidence for coercion.

Conclusion

The Rita Rea v Remo Rea & Ors decision advances a nuanced understanding of undue influence in wills and reaffirms the threshold for proving coercive undue influence is high. It distinguishes between acceptable persuasive efforts within family relationships and the illegitimate overpowering of a testator’s free will. It reinforces that, even in the case of a dependent and infirm testator, the testamentary wishes expressed are to be respected unless there is clear and cogent evidence of undue influence. By allowing the appeal, the Court of Appeal underscored the primacy of the testator’s autonomy and intent in testamentary affairs.

Related Summaries