Dementia, Neighbours & Undue Influence

Betty Dyke, died in May 2004 aged 84. She left a large estate. Betty was a single child with no brothers or sisters. She never married and had no children of her own. Her closest family at the time of her death were her cousins. She made her last will in January 2001. Probate of this will was granted on 11 October 2004.

The principal asset of her estate was her farm on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. The property was sold by her executors for over $15 million dollars. She also had $877,804 invested in a number of bank accounts.

In her 2001 Will, Betty made a number of monetary gifts to some of her family and friends, $10,000 to the Cat Protection Society and $100,000 to the RSPCA. She left the remainder of her estate to her neighbours Tim and Denise Knaggs, Robert and Sandra Allen, and Gary and Diane Smith. Betty’s Will in 1999 was broadly similar. However her 1985 Will left the bulk of her estate to several charities, which provide care to animals and services to the deaf and blind.

Betty suffered from scoliosis and dementia that both increased in severity as she grew older. When she made the Wills in 1999 and 2001, she was frail, vulnerable and anxious and needed the support of caregivers. They were Denise Knaggs, Robert and Sandra Allen, and Gary and Diane Smith. She called these people her “Friends”.

In September 1999 when she was giving instructions for her Will she told her solicitor:

Denise, Robert & Sandra Allen and the Smiths are very important to me – they are my best friends – they look after me, & my property & animals. Denise helps me more than anyone. They get paid but not much and they help me enormously. They are my friends. They do what needs doing.

Betty’s family challenged both the 2001 Will and the 1999 Will, on the basis that she lacked testamentary capacity; that she was subjected to undue influence in the making of the relevant wills and codicils; and, finally, that she lacked the necessary knowledge of the contents of, and therefore did not approve of, these wills. If the 1999 and 2001 wills are set aside, the 1985 Will, which is not under challenge, should operate as Betty’s valid will.

The Court found that by mid-1999, Betty was no longer capable of looking after herself, and was increasingly dependent on her neighbours. As a corollary Betty was vulnerable to suggestion from people she did not know and who were in a position to exercise influence over her in relation to her legal affairs, at the time of preparation of the 1999 Will.

The Court found that Betty’s cognitive impairment contributed to her dependence on her caregivers, and rendered her susceptible to their influence.  Denise Knaggs, as Betty’s primary caregiver, had influenced Betty to include her husband, Tim  as a beneficiary, despite Betty’s strong feeling of antipathy toward him.The Court decided that the Allen’s and the Smith’s had not engaged in any behaviour that could be considered undue influence.

Similarly the Court found that Betty was not of sound mind, memory and understanding at the relevant times, and was compelled to find against the validity of the 2001 Will, and set them aside, and Tim Knaggs removed as a beneficiary. However the Court accepted the 1999 will as valid and the Residual estate was split into thirds and given to Denise Knaggs, the Allen’s and the Smith’s.

 

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