When Religious Tradition Meets 21st Century Legal Principles

When should happen where a member of a religious family believes that the traditions and principles of their religion are unfair?

Ranjit Singh died in March 2009 leaving a 1999 Will gifting almost the entirety of his estate between his three sons Jarnail, Ajaib and Jugdeep Balvinder. Two of Mr Singh’s daughters were bequeathed £20,000 each and a third daughter received nothing. His estate was valued at just over £870,000.

One of the two daughters- Balvinder Kaur Ahluwalia- who had received £20,000 decided to challenge her father’s Will after his death. She argued that the Will was invalid as the two witnesses had not been present at the same time as Mr Singh signing it.

Section 9 of the Wills Act 1837 outlines the formalities which must be complied with in order for a Will to be validly executed. These are not as stringent as people may believe but do state that a Will must be in writing, signed by the testator with the intention of giving effect to the Will and in the presence of two or more witnesses present at the same time, with each witness then signing the Will themselves in the presence of the testator.

In Ms Ahluwalia’s case the Court found in her favour and declared the Will invalid so that instead Mr Singh’s estate was to be divided equally between the six children.

Jarnail had defended the claim arguing that his father had complied with Sikh tradition in providing for the eldest sons to assume the main role, with the daughters being treated as part of their husband’s family and provided for through large wedding dowries.

The Judge’s ruling did not however need to take such traditions into account in coming to a decision. Instead the Judge focused upon the formalities and, in reliance upon a key witness who was sure that the witnesses had not all been present at the same time, was able to declare the Will invalid, thus circumventing its terms and allowing the estate to be distributed equally in accordance with the intestacy rules.

This is not the only way in which a Will can be challenged. A Will can be challenged on various grounds such as if there is evidence that the testator lacked testamentary capacity, was unduly influenced into executing the document or did not have sufficient knowledge and approval of the contents of the Will. Whilst such claims can be difficult to succeed upon, if successful, they will result in a Will being declared invalid. The Court will then only allow the estate to be distributed in accordance with earlier provision made by the testator. If there is an earlier valid Will then this will be the basis of the distribution, but if there is no such earlier Will, as with Mr Singh’s estate, then the intestacy rules will apply.

A further challenge that can be made to a Will is under the Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependants) Act 1975. If, like Ms Ahluwalia, you are a child of the deceased then you are eligible to bring the claim under section 1(1)(c) of the 1975 Act. You will need to convince the Court that the provision you have received is not reasonable and that instead you should receive more for your maintenance. These claims are difficult to value as there is so much discretion involved in a Judge’s ruling 1975 Act claims are therefore often settled out of court.

If you think you have a valid claim based on similar circumstances to those outlined above then please call us on 0808 139 1599 for a free assessment.