Marley v Rawlings: a victory for common sense in mirror Wills case

24 / 01 / 2014

We first wrote about the Marley v. Rawlings case in November 2011 following the Court of Appeal’s ruling that mirror Wills signed by a couple could not be treated as valid as the couple had each signed the other’s Will rather than their own. This decision was appealed and the ruling of the Supreme Court was published on 22 January 2014.

Firstly, a reminder of the facts.

Mr and Mrs Rawlings made mirror Wills in 1999 leaving their estates to each other, and on the second death to Terry Marley, who was treated as their adopted son. Their two biological sons, Terry Rawlings – an acclaimed biographer of rock stars – and his brother Michael, were not included.

Mrs Rawlings died first in 2003. On Mr Rawlings’ death in 2006, the two biological sons noticed that their father had signed their mother’s Will, and vice versa, and argued that the Wills were therefore invalid.

The “adopted” son applied to the High Court for Mr Rawlings’ Will to be rectified, as he argued that it was clearly the intention of the couple to leave their estates to him. The High Court and, on appeal, the Court of Appeal, disagreed, and Mr and Mrs Rawlings’ estates passed to their estranged sons under the intestacy rules. The Court expressed regret that they could not rectify Mr Rawlings’ Will but made the reasoned decision that because the Will was not, in fact, a “Will” within the definition in s.9 of the Wills Act 1837, nor did it have Mr Rawlings’ knowledge and approval, the law on rectification was not available. The Court’s hands were seemingly tied.

However, the Supreme Court has thankfully taken a different view. The Court ruled that a document does not have to be a valid “Will” within the legal definition nor have the testator’s knowledge and approval for it to be capable of being treated as a “Will” and be capable of being rectified.

The law on rectification, set out in s.20 of the Administration of Justice Act 1982, allows rectification of a Will where it fails to carry out the testator’s intentions because of a “clerical error”.

The Supreme Court decided that the fact that the two spouses had signed each other’s Will by mistake was capable of constituting a “clerical error” (despite it resulting in the need to make a wholesale replacement in order to rectify the relevant Will). Mr Rawlings’ Will could therefore be rectified to contain the true wording of the Will he should have signed, meaning the couple’s “adopted” son, Mr Marley, inherits as they intended.

So finally, justice is done in this case and common sense is brought to what was previously a very sad and frustrating case.

Whilst not an argument that this case turned on, the Supreme Court also made an important development to the law on interpretation of Wills that could have far-reaching implications for future cases. The Court ruled that if any part of a Will is ambiguous and the Court is required to interpret its true meaning, the Court can adopt the same approach as that used when interpreting a commercial contract, i.e. an interpretation that gives effect to the intention of the parties (or party) involved. This comparison between Wills and commercial contracts had not previously been drawn. Thankfully, as it happened, in Marley v. Rawlings the effect given by the rectification route was the same: the true wishes of Mr and Mrs Rawlings were carried out.

“DIY” will kits are increasingly common these days and mistakes in these cannot be ruled out. Following Marley v. Rawlings, there is a greater likelihood of the courts being able to sort out such mistakes and allow the wishes of the testator to stand; however, the pain, suffering and damage such claims can cause to family relations (between the biological and “adopted” son(s) in this case) will often never be rectified. Far better to try and avoid such mistakes in the first place.

Fay Copeland, partner and head of the Private Client team at Wedlake Bell, is a specialist in contentious trust and probate work. Please contact Fay to discuss making a Will or any of the issues arising from this case.