The England & Wales High Court has upheld a will executed by 78-year-old George Wharton on his deathbed, leaving everything to his long-term partner Maureen.
The challenge was brought by the testator's daughters, who alleged that the execution was obtained by Maureen's undue influence.
George Wharton was a Kent businessman who operated holiday camps and caravan parks. At his death in September 2008, his estate was worth GBP4 million.
The sequence of events leading up to his death was unusual. He had been suffering from terminal cancer, and when told he had only days to live he returned home from hospital to settle his affairs. By then he had been cohabiting with Maureen for 32 years, his first marriage having ended in divorce in 1977.
The same evening, Maureen and he were married in a ceremony conducted by two visiting registrars. Just before the ceremony, he executed the contentious will making Maureen his sole beneficiary. It was handwritten by his family solicitor Timothy Bancroft, who read it aloud to the testator, and (along with his own wife) also witnessed its execution. The will was made in contemplation of the marriage.
Three days later George Wharton died. As the High Court judge (Mr Justice Norris) put it: "A deathbed marriage, a deathbed will, a large estate and the absence of any provision for issue may be expected to heighten family tension." It did. The testator's three daughters challenged the deathbed will, claiming that Maureen used undue influence to make George execute a document that was contrary to his wishes.
But Mr Justice Norris disagreed, stating that he could not accept that Mr Wharton was acting under coercion when making a deathbed will in favour of the woman he had treated as his wife for 32 years, and whom he had just chosen to marry. "He quite plainly understood marriage as a solution to the inheritance tax problem which overhung the business he and Maureen had created and for which he had made no provision", said the judge.
After the judgement, Maureen Wharton criticised George's daughters for challenging the will by using solicitors on a contingency fee arrangement.