Included in most people's wills is a clause that has the effect of revoking all their previous wills. Such straightforward provisions are usually uncontentious but, as a guideline Court of Appeal ruling showed, they can give rise to difficulties where a testator has assets both in England and abroad.
A businessman had substantial assets in England and India when he died at the age of 72. He made a will in 2007 dealing with all of those assets. However, he made another will in 2016 which disposed only of his Indian assets. The 2016 will was declared to be his last and included a clause that revoked all such previous documents.
After an inheritance dispute broke out between members of his family, a judge found that the meaning of the revocation clause could not have been clearer and that it revoked the 2007 will in its entirety. That meant that the businessman died intestate – without having a valid will in place – save in respect of his Indian estate.
A more senior judge, however, subsequently took a different view on appeal: he found that the revocation clause was only effective to revoke the 2007 will to the extent that it dealt with the businessman's Indian assets. That meant that his English assets would be distributed in accordance with the 2007 will.
Upholding a challenge to the latter ruling, the Court noted that, given the clear and unambiguous terms of the revocation clause, the businessman was, on the face of it, to be taken as having intended the 2016 will to be not only his primary will but his only will. Circumstantial and other evidence before the Court fell short of displacing such a conclusion.
The businessman may well have assumed that all but a relatively modest lump of his English assets had already been dealt with by way of lifetime gifts. He may have regarded his English estate as less pressing and something that could be dealt with at a later date. The legal presumption that he did not intend to die intestate was quite weak in the circumstances and insufficient to overcome the natural meaning of the revocation clause. The Court's ruling meant that the 2007 will had been wholly revoked.