Does alcoholism invalidate a Will?

Alcoholism and Testamentary Capacity

We are often asked whether a deceased person's alcoholism is sufficient to render their Will invalid. A recent case in the High Court, Edkins v Hopkins & Ors [2016] considered this very point, looking at the impact reliance on alcohol has on testamentary capacity. In that case, the testator, Philip Hopkins, executed his last Will in the presence of the drafting solicitor on 6 June 2014, leaving an estate worth around £1m. The Will appointed the claimant, Gary Edkins to be the executor and trustee. Mr Edkins was to receive all Mr Hopkins' shares in his company and any sums due from the company. Mr Hopkins' wife, Dorothy, the first defendant, received his his flat and the residue of the estate was to be divided, with 75% going to Mr Edkins and the remaining 25% going to Mr Hopkins' wife and his three children, the second, third and fourth defendants.

Mr Edkins applied for a Grant of Probate. However the four defendants had entered a caveat on the grounds that Mr Hopkins did not have testamentary capacity when he made his Will. They also argued that he lacked 'knowledge and approval' and was unduly influenced by Mr Edkins whilst he was in a vulnerable state.

The circumstances leading to the challenge were as follows: Mr Hopkins had employed Mr Edkins to assist him in his manufacturing business in 1990 and the two men became friends. Mr Hopkins' first marriage broke down shortly afterwards and only his youngest son remained living with him. Mr Hopkins began seeing Dorothy, who was to become his second wife, in 1998. She and her young daughter moved in with Mr Hopkins and his youngest son shortly afterwards. By 2005 Mr Hopkins had bought a building plot on the island of St Kitts and was in the process of building a villa there. Mr Hopkins gave instructions for a Will to be drafted in 2006.

The 2006 Will gave Mr Hopkins' principal residence and his pension to Dorothy. His shares in his company were to be divided between his youngest son and Mr Edkins. The residue of his estate was to be divided between Dorothy and his sons. Shortly after executing the 2006 Will Mr Hopkins and Dorothy began spending more time in St Kitts leaving Mr Edkins to manage the company. Whilst in St Kitts Mr Hopkins began to drink and gamble heavily. Following a short separation, Mr Hopkins married Dorothy in 2012. Meanwhile, Mr Hopkins' youngest son stopped working at the company following disagreements with employees and a breakdown in his relationship with his father. He also developed a drug problem around that time.

The relationship between Mr and Mrs Hopkins began to breakdown in December 2012 when it became clear that his drinking was impacting upon his health. Mrs Hopkins returned to the UK in January 2013 to live with her mother. Mr Hopkins was not domesticated and Mrs Hopkins evidence was that she continued to visit him regularly in order to cook and clean for him and do his shopping. Mr Edkins and his wife also visited Mr Hopkins and helped to clean and arrange for bills to be paid. Mr Hopkins continued drinking and his health deteriorated. He became dependant upon others to care for him. On 30 April and 9 May 2014 Mr Hopkins suffered falls and was eventually admitted to hospital where he was found to be extremely vague, confused and incontinent. Over the following days there were regular entries in his medical notes about his confused state. He declined assistance from the alcohol liaison service and then discharged himself against medical advice. Mr Edkins was on holiday at this time and returned home on 2 June 2014. Mr Hopkins allegedly rang Mr Edkins that day and asked him to arrange for a solicitor to prepare a Will.

On 5 June the solicitor visited Mr Hopkins at home to make the new Will. The solicitor’s evidence was that she found Mr Hopkins looking unwell but believed he had a clear understanding of what he was doing and there was no indication that he had been drinking that day. The solicitor returned with two colleagues on 6 June so that Mr Hopkins could execute his Will. The solicitor read the Will to Mr Hopkins and then passed it to him to read. When he approved it she got her colleagues to come into the room to witness it. After the Will was signed Mr Hopkins asked the solicitor to call for a doctor. She relayed this information to Mr Edkins before leaving.

When the doctor arrived he noticed a gin bottle and Mr Hopkins informed him that he had consumed three gins that day. The doctor found that he was capable of answering questions and did not appear to be heavily intoxicated. Mr Hopkins was admitted to hospital that day. Over the following  weeks there were frequent references to Mr Hopkins being confused recorded in his medical records. His health continued to deteriorate up until his death from pneumonia and alcoholic liver disease on 6 September 2014.

Following Mr Hopkins' death, the defendants entered a caveat on the grounds that, due to his alcohol related medical conditions, he lacked capacity to make the Will, was unable to understand or approve its contents or had been susceptible to undue influence exerted on him by Mr Edkins whilst he was vulnerable.

Considering all the evidence, including expert evidence, the Judge concluded that, despite his periods of confusion, the rational nature of Mr Hopkins’ instructions to the solicitor and her assessments of his level of understanding were sufficient for him to have had sufficient testamentary capacity when giving instructions for his Will and later executing it. The solicitor’s evidence was accepted and the Judge also found that Mr Hopkins understood both what he was doing and the effect of his Will.

When considering the allegations of undue influence, the Judge accepted that the episodes of confusion and dependence on alcohol and those buying it for him excited suspicion. However, significant weight was placed upon the close relationship shared between Mr Edkins and Mr Hopkins and the fact that the latter freely gave the former a degree of control over himself and his affairs.

This case illustrates the difficulties with challenging the validity of a Will on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity arising from alcoholism. Although not an easy challenge to make, each case will turn on its own particular facts. If you are concerned that a loved one’s alcohol dependence may have led to them lacking capacity at the time of making their Will, or if you believe they were subject to undue influence, contact our Will dispute specialists on 0808 139 1599 for a free assessment.