Is there a time limit for challenging a will?

Time limits and delay when challenging a will

While there is a strict 6 month time limit for making an Inheritance Act claim, no such time limits apply to a challenge to the validity of a will. 

However, time is still an important factor and delay can prove fatal to a legal challenge. This is because once Probate has been granted the estate can be distributed and it can soon become too late for effective action to be taken to retrieve all the assets.

The case of the window cleaner, the invalid will and the missing money

In a previous article Naomi Ireson highlighted the dangers of delay in bringing a contentious probate claim and the need to act quickly to avoid an estate being distributed or dissipated before justice can be done.  The article featured the estate of Julie Spalding who died at the age of 98. Her will left her entire estate, worth in the region of £300,000, to her window cleaner, Albert Pearce.  

The validity of her will was challenged, but only after Probate had already been granted. The court upheld the challenge on the basis that the deceased lacked mental capacity.  The court ordered Mr Pearce to repay all the inheritance money he had received, together with the costs of the legal proceedings brought by Mrs Spalding's nephew, Cecil Bray.

However, Mr Pearce claimed he had already exhausted all the assets and had been declared bankrupt.  He said he had spent the inheritance on gambling and traveling and was therefore unable to return the money.  However, Mr Pearce’s version of events was challenged. He was accused of hiding the money in various bank accounts to conceal his fortune.

Mr Pearce’s trustee in bankruptcy applied to commit Mr Pearce to prison for breaching the terms of his bankruptcy which were said to constitute deliberate, repeated and serious contempt of court.

Contempt of court

It was alleged that Mr Pearce had done whatever he could to prevent the trustee finding out what had become of the money he had inherited from Mrs Spalding.  The allegations against Mr Pearce were that:

  1. He had failed to provide meaningful or truthful disclosure of his financial affairs;
  2. He had lied about his financial affairs;
  3. He attempted to conceal from his trustee in bankruptcy that he had passed the inheritance money through a chain of transactions; and
  4. A general lack of cooperation with the trustee in bankruptcy’s enquiries

In his defence, Mr Pearce argued:

  1. That he did not have any bank accounts;
  2. That his car had been seized;
  3. That at the time that his car was seized by bailiffs there was £300,000 in cash together with other assets within it;
  4. That he had won £300,000 in casinos over a period of time;
  5. That he intended to use the £300,000 to pay the petitioning creditors;
  6. That he had spent all of the money he received from Mrs Spalding's will on three world cruises and on gambling;
  7. That he had purchased no extraordinary items;
  8. He had no documentary evidence of any of the above.

He said he had received between £300,000 and £350,000 and when asked how the money was received he confirmed that it was paid into a bank account.  However, he could not recall which bank nor through which firm of solicitors it was received.  After that, he said twice that he had no bank account at the time when the inheritance money was paid to him and suggested that the money was paid to him in cash by the solicitors at an unknown address.  His account was clearly far-fetched.

The trustee in bankruptcy carried out his own investigation which revealed:

  1. Mr Pearce had received the bulk of the inheritance money in two cheques.  These cheques were paid into an account with Nationwide in Mr Pearce’s sole name and transferred from another Nationwide account in Mr Pearce’s sole name;
  2. A sum of less than £20,000 was paid to Thomas Cook Retail for what one can only presume to be holidays;
  3. Mr Pearce had a current account with Barclays from which he transferred the sum of £10,000 into a Barclays account in his daughter's name;
  4. Mr Pearce transferred £251,672.12 from his account into a trust account for the benefit of his grandson.  That sum was subsequently withdrawn and used to open a similar account in the name of Mr Pearce's daughter less than a month later.  Subsequently, the sum of £220,000 was withdrawn and paid into an account in Mr Pearce’s sole name which was later a joint account held with his daughter.  A similar sum of money that was then transferred into an account held by his daughter in her own name.  It later transpired that Mr Pearce’s daughter had emptied that account around a week before the trustee obtained the interim injunction freezing that account and the funds in it.

During the hearing Mr Pearce said he had been left money in other Wills.  When he was asked by the court why he made no mention of this, he responded with "why should I answer questions about money that isn't their money?".  He went on to indicate that "they" (by which he appeared to mean Mrs Spalding’s family) were only interested in the money that she left him.

Mr Pearce had every opportunity to explain why he failed to disclose what really happened to the money and why he went to such elaborate lengths to pass it through members of his family in different bank accounts.  He lied about spending the money when the bulk of it was transferred into and out of accounts set up for that purpose.

The court concluded that this was an extremely serious case of contempt of court covering a wide range of reprehensible conduct.  The court sent Mr Pearce to Pentonville prison specifying that six months were to be served in prison and six months in the community on licence.

Avoid delay when challenging a will

Whilst this case highlights the astonishing (and criminal) lengths some people will go to, it is also a very important reminder of why you should not delay in challenging a will. It emphasises why it is crucial to initiate the will challenge before an estate is distributed. Whilst Mr Pearce has been punished for his criminal acts, we are left wondering whether Mr Bray may ever receive the benefit of the estate he is legally entitled to.

This case is also highlights the sanctions a court can impose on someone who deliberately avoids complying with court orders.

How we can help

We are experienced in challenging wills and deal with cases nationwide. Our team also have experience in applying for an order for contempt of court, which was the application made against Mr Pearce that led to his imprisonment.

Contact us for a free initial assessment of your case. Phone 0808 139 1599 or email us at info@inheritancedisputes.co.uk