High Court Rules on Validity of Will and Costs in Probate Dispute: Theodora Richefond & Ors v Hope Dillon & Ors [2023] EWHC 2796 (Ch)

Citation: [2023] EWHC 2796 (Ch)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the recent decision of Theodora Richefond & Ors v Hope Dillon & Ors [2023] EWHC 2796 (Ch), the High Court’s Property Trust and Probate List (ChD) was tasked with addressing a probate claim surrounding the validity of a will. The case focused on the principles guiding the admission of a will to probate when its validity is contested and also considered the associated costs proceedings. This article aims to dissect the case law, highlighting the pertinent legal principles and outcomes that shaped the Master McQuail’s ruling.

Key Facts

The claim centred on Kenneth Grizzle’s will which had uncertain components concerning his knowledge and approval of the gifts it contained. The claimants, executors named in the will, sought to propound the will in its entirety. Conversely, the defendants, beneficiaries under intestacy, challenged specific parts of the will. The court initially ruled in favor as to part, declaring a gift of residue invalid due to lack of knowledge and approval by the testator. The contentious issues revolving around this partial intestacy led to the costs aspect of the proceedings, where the claimants sought an indemnity from the estate for the costs incurred.

The legal discussion in this case encompassed several dominating principles, predominantly around the validity of a will and the rules pertaining to the allocation of costs in contentious probate litigation.

Validity of Will

The case examined whether the will was valid and could be admitted to probate. The test for validity includes assessing whether the testator had the requisite knowledge and approval of the will’s contents. In this instance, the court found that although part of Kenneth’s will was valid, specifically relating to a property at Stanley Road, the gift of residue failed due to a lack of knowledge and approval on the testator’s part.

Costs Proceedings

Two principal rules from CPR 44.2 served as guidelines for assessing costs: the court’s discretion in awarding costs (CPR r.44.2(1)) and the general rule that costs follow the event (CPR r.44.2(2)). The court also applied the principles under CPR 46.3 (2) and CPR PD 46, governing trusts and estates in cost matters, emphasizing the circumstances when trustees or personal representatives are entitled to indemnity from an estate.

Moreover, the case touched upon notable precedents such as Spiers v English and Kostic v Chaplin, which offered the guiding principles for exceptions to the general rule of costs in probate disputes. According to Spiers v English, costs may be borne by the estate if the testator’s conduct was the cause of litigation or if circumstances reasonably led to an investigation. Kostic v Chaplin reinforced the requirement that a specific case must be made to deviate from the general rule where costs follow the event.

Outcomes

Master McQuail reached several significant conclusions that provide insight into how probate courts approach both the validation of wills and the intricate decision-making process surrounding costs:

  1. The claimants succeeded in proving the will valid as to the Stanley Road property but failed regarding the residue, leading to its distribution under intestacy rules.
  2. In matters of costs, neither the claimants nor the Grizzle Children were ordered to pay the costs of the other.
  3. The claimants were not entitled to indemnity from the estate for their costs since they did not assume a neutral stance but actively pursued the claim for the benefit of one of their own, assuming the risk on costs.
  4. The cost of the Grizzle Children should be paid from the residue before division, ensuring that the beneficiaries do not receive an undue windfall from the intestacy.

Conclusion

Theodora Richefond & Ors v Hope Dillon & Ors illustrates the court’s meticulous approach in probate disputes, balancing the validation of wills against the equitable distribution of costs. The Master’s application of relevant legal principles, especially those concerning when executors may be awarded costs from an estate, sets a precedent for future cases. Executors seeking to propel a will to probate take on the inherent risk of costs and must display reasonable justification for their actions to seek indemnification from the estate, as reinforced by this case. This decision is a significant contribution to the understanding of cost liability in probate litigation and the necessary neutrality expected of executors in disputed will proceedings.

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