In the case of Re estate of Dean Ashley James Brunt, deceased (probate) Wrangle v Brunt & Another , the claimant, Winston Neville Wrangle, known as Bob (“Bob”) brought a probate claim seeking an order revoking grant of letters of administration issued to the first defendant, Marlene Brunt (“Marlene”) on the grounds that the deceased, Dean Ashley James Brunt (“Dean”) did not die intestate.
Dean died on 8 December 2007 aged 35 in tragic circumstances having stepped out onto the railway track in front of a train near Sawbridgeworth station.
Bob was Dean’s uncle by marriage, having been married to Valerie, the younger sister of Dean’s mother, Marlene until her death in 2010. Marlene also had another son, Dale, who was second defendant in the proceedings and a daughter, Venetia who was estranged from Marlene, having been brought up by Bob and Valerie. Dale and Dean had been brought up by Marlene and their grandfather, Arthur. Dean, who had been starved of oxygen at birth which, it was thought, had contributed to his learning difficulties and mental health issues later in life, had also spend periods of time living with Valerie and Bob when he was in trouble or felt the need for his aunt’s attention.
In June 2018, solicitors instructed by Venetia wrote to Dale’s solicitors enclosing a copy of the purported will dated 2 March 1999 which was stated to have been found in a correspondence file in the offices of Howard Day, who had been assisting Dean in connection with a family dispute which had subsisted throughout the 2000s over his late grandfather’s estate.
This letter was followed in August 2018 by a formal letter of claim to Marlene from solicitors instructed on behalf of Bob. In that letter, it was alleged that Marlene was aware of the execution by Dean of the will and that following execution thereof, Marlene or Dale hid or destroyed the will. It also alleged that a copy of the will, kept at Bob and Valerie’s home, was also removed by Marlene or Dale.
Marlene continued to deny the validity of the will and so on 8 November 2018, Bob issued a probate claim wherein he sought an order setting aside the letters of administration that had been granted to Marlene on 25 July 2008 on the basis that Dean did not die intestate and seeking to propound the testamentary document dated 2 March 1999.
Marlene and Dale alleged that the testamentary document was a forgery and sought an order dismissing the probate claim. They claimed it was not executed in 1999 but in fact several years after Dean’s death and that accordingly, Dean had indeed died intestate.
By his will, Dean appointed Marlene as his executrix and trustee of his will and gave her the sum of £20,000.00. He also made gifts to Valerie and Bob in similar amounts.
He also left his share in Ettridge Farm (a farm which he had inherited along with his two siblings and Arthur’s son following his grandfather’s death) to Dale and Venetia in equal shares and a separate property on the farm known as Old Barn to Valerie and Bob.
The residuary of his estate was to be shared equally by Dale and Venetia.
As well as Dean’s will, the court also had before it some typed attendance notes of Howard Day. These set out purported instructions to prepare a will on Dean’s behalf in February and March 1999.
Deed of variation
Following the obtaining of letters of administration Marlene had arranged to execute a deed of variation passing Dean’s inherited share of Ettridge farm (which had an estimated value of £6 million) from her to Dale meaning that Dale then owned two thirds of the farm with Venetia the remaining one third rather than in equal shares as would be the case if Dean was found not to have died intestate.
Having heard evidence from the attesting witnesses to the will as well as Howard Day’s son, Jonathan (Howard having died by the time of the trial) as regards the execution of the will in 1999 together with evidence from other witnesses supporting the fact that Dean had told them he had made a will in 1999, the court found that the will was valid. The court also rejected the suggestions that Mr Day’s notes at the time the will was made was part of an “elaborate fraud” notwithstanding the fact that Mr Day had previously been convicted of fraud resulting in a prison sentence. The court also concluded that Dale appeared to be intent on simply “arguing his and Marlene’s case” and that Marlene herself was a “most unimpressive witness”. She and Dale had deliberately kept Bob and Venetia in the dark about Dean having “died intestate” and his share having passed to Dale.
But for the cat
By the time of the trial, a duplicate version of Dean’s will had also been discovered. This duplicate document had unwittingly been discovered amongst a pile of Mr Day’s documents when they had been knocked over by a cat. The papers had been forwarded to Mrs Sillett, a solicitor instructed by Bob following Mr Day’s death. Mrs Sillett was organising the papers and had piled up what she believed to be duplicate unnecessary copies ready for shredding. Her cat knocked over the pile and when Mrs Sillett picked them up she realised that what she believed to be a duplicate copy of the will was in fact an original. Bob’s counsel said it was agreed that the second will was written at the same time as the first and so it was “crucial evidence in support of the authenticity of both”. The signature on the first will was found to be unsteady which suggested it had been signed years later when Mr Day was less firm.
Although experts said there was evidence both may have been written later, the signature on the second document (found due to the cat) was more steady-handed and more similar to examples of Mr Day’s signature in the late 1990s. But for the cat and the discovery of the second will, it is possible that the court would have not have ruled in favour of the wills.
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