Many claims, such as those for personal injury or breach of contract must be issued at the Court within a set a time limit, called a “limitation period”. Limitation periods provide individuals and businesses alike with some protection from claims arising from events in the distant past.
The time limits can vary from case to case, but claims which challenge the validity of a person’s will after they have died (also known as a “probate claim”) do not have a limitation period.
Despite this, it is not a good idea to wait several years before deciding to bring a probate claim, as delay (known as the doctrine of “laches”) may be a bar to bringing the claim. This scenario arose in the recent High Court case of James v Scudamore and others  EWHC 996 (Ch).
James v Scudamore was a claim brought by Martyn James to challenge the validity of a codicil executed by his late father, Ivor. He prepared a will in 1998, giving a life interest in the marital home to his second wife, Christine, with the house passing to the Martyn and his brother outright after Christine’s death. However, Ivor executed a codicil in 2002, which changed his will by leaving the house to Christine outright.
Ivor sadly passed away in 2010. Christine then passed away in 2018, leaving her estate to various other family members including her sister, who sadly died shortly after Christine. Martyn wanted to receive his interest in his father’s home after Christine’s death, which had instead passed into her estate. He challenged the validity of the codicil on the grounds that it had not been validly executed. However, Martyn waited until 2020 to bring his claim. It is important to note that Martyn had threatened to issue his claim in 2013 but waited until 2020 to issue proceedings.
The High Court dismissed Martyn’s probate claim on the grounds that he had waited too long to bring his claim along with the fact that Christine (who had been present when the codicil was signed) and one of the witnesses to the codicil had both died. Christine had also administered and distributed the estate and made a further will. This decision has, for the first time, made it clear that the laches doctrine can cause a probate claim to be dismissed due to the delay in bringing the claim, even though there is no formal limitation period in place.
If you unreasonably delay bringing a claim which has the ultimate goal of recovering assets from another party (such as a probate claim), this can result in the Court blocking the recovery of those assets on the basis that it would be unfair to do so when a long time has passed and the estate assets may have been spent, gifted, or sold to many other people. It is worth noting that in James v Scudamore the Court also went on to find that the claim would have failed in any event and that Martyn’s allegation that the codicil had not been duly executed was based on a story concocted by the surviving witness to the codicil and her daughter. This is an important decision for those seeking to bring and defend probate claims. Those who wish to challenge the validity of a Deceased person’s will should ensure they take steps to act as early as possible from the moment they have concerns. Those who wish to defend a probate claim may now be able to use a Claimant’s unreasonable delay, possibly on its own, as a defence to their claim.
However, it should be noted that each case will vary on its facts, so it is important that you seek independent legal advice if you think that this decision might affect you.
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