Undue influence challenges – Rea v Rea

The recent case of Rea v Rea [2024] EWCA Civ 169 evidences the high bar cases of undue influence
must overcome. The Court of Appeal stated that to bring a successful claim, undue influence must be
more probable than any other hypothesis.
Background
The claim was brought by Rita, the daughter of the late Mrs Anna Rea. Under the 1986 Will, the
Anna’s estate had been divided equally among her four children. This had remained her settled
testamentary intent until 2015, when she made a new Will which bequeathed the principal asset of her
estate, her house, to Rita.
The 2015 Will contained a declaration of reasons for the change of her testamentary intent, namely,
the defendants, who were her three sons, have not cared for her and therefore, “should any of my sons
challenge my estate I wish my executors to defend any such claim as they are not dependent on me,
and I do not wish for them to share in my estate save what I have stated in this Will.” The residue of
Anna’s estate was to be divided into four equal shares, one share for each of her children.
In July 2017, Rita issued proceeding seeking to prove the later will. The sons counterclaimed
challenging the validity of that will on the grounds of want of testamentary capacity, want of
knowledge and approval, undue influence, and fraudulent calumny. At the trial, the judge found that
only undue influence had been made out.
On appeal, the Court revisited the legal principles for undue influence and concluded that the judge
was mistaken in finding that it existed in this case.

Undue influence
Undue influence relates to whether a third party coerced a testator into making the will in question.
For a successful claim, you must evidence that the third party overpowers and dominates the testator
to such an extent that they lacked free will when making the will and the testator would not have
made a will on the same terms if it were not for this undue influence.
The Court of Appeal, in this case, confirmed that to establish undue influence “the circumstances
must be such that undue influence is more probable than any other hypothesis” and that “if another
possibility is just as likely, undue influence will not have been established”.
In this case, although Rita has “a forceful personality”, there was “no direct evidence of the
application of such influence” exerted by the daughter over the deceased. Anna continued to express
her wish to leave her house to Rita even when she was not present. Further, the Court said “there was
a perfectly rational basis” for giving the claimant the property, as she had lived there and had looked
after Anna for six years. The Court of Appeal found that the High Court had failed to take this into
consideration when making its decision.
Rea v Rea [2024] proves that it is difficult for beneficiaries to prove undue influence in such cases.
The third party must have acted coercively, not just persuasively. The starting point for these claims is
that undue influence is improbable, meaning that successful undue influence claims are difficult to
achieve.