High Court rules farmer was not subject to undue influence when making will

(stock photo)
(stock photo)

Tim Healy

A bachelor farmer had testamentary capacity and was not subject to undue influence when he made a will leaving his entire holding to one of his nephews, the High Court ruled.

Mr Justice Charles Meenan overturned a Circuit Court finding that Michael Buckley (76), who had a 54 acre farm at Caim, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, was not of sound disposing mind when he made the will in his hospital bed five days before he died on March 20, 2011.

The farm was left to Richard Cooper jun (40), son of Sheila Cooper, Michael's sister.

Four other siblings of Michael - Teresa Doyle and Joseph, William and Elizabeth Buckley - sued Richard Cooper junior claiming their brother lacked the required mental capacity to properly and legally dispose of his property.

The court heard Michael's health began to deteriorate towards the end of 2010 and by February/March 2011 it was clear he was terminally ill with cancer.

Mr Justice Meenan said after he was hospitalised, his sister Sheila took on the bulk of the responsibility of ensuring he had all his necessities, along with her husband Dick Cooper.

While it was claimed the Coopers "monopolised visiting hours" while he was in hospital, the evidence fell well short of establishing this, the judge. After Michael underwent surgery in early March, hospital visits were restricted by the authorities over fears surrounding infection.

The judge said there was evidence given of a physical altercation between Michael and Richard junior - which the nephew strongly denied ever happened - sometime before Michael got sick. This alleged altercation appeared to relate to financial difficulties Richard jun was having at the time and were probably due to the financial crash, the judge said.

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"While the disagreement, whatever precisely it may have been, may have reached the point of a physical confrontation with the deceased, I cannot see that such would be a basis for making a claim of undue influence", he said.

There was also evidence about conversations among family members about Michael's health and speculation as to who would inherit the property. The judge did not think it surprising such conversations would take place given the importance of the property to the family.

The court also heard that one solicitor was asked by Shela to visit Michael in hospital to make a will and did visit but found he was too ill to make it on March 12, 2015.

Three days later, March 15, Sheila's husband asked another solicitor to visit him to make a will and this was when the will was made. These arrangements could not be considered to be acts of undue influence, the judge said.

Mr Justice Meenan was satisfied the evidence to the court of the second solicitor, Jason Dunne of John A Sinnott & Co, was "both truthful and accurate".  

Mr Dunne was fully aware of the requirement of the deceased to have testamentary capacity, in particular as he is an author of various publications concerning inheritance and wills, the judge said.

Mr Dunne acted professionally in reaching his conclusion that Michael did have capacity. The deceased gave an inaccurate answer to the acreage of his farm, but the accuracy of other information he provided meant the acreage mistake was not of such an order to establish lack of capacity, the judge said.

The fact that what was described as a "squiggle" for a signature on the will was explained by Mr Dunne as down to Michael being physically weak. That also did not indicate lack of capacity.

The judge said it was entirely logical and rational for the deceased to bequeath the property in its entirety to one member of the family. Given Richard jun had more involvement in agricultural matters than other family members, "it would seem to me it was rational that he be the one chosen by the deceased to inherit the property".

Though Michael was under the effects of opioid-based painkillers and in a weakened state, the judge was satisfied, from the Mr Cooper's medical expert, that the levels of these drugs present in his blood system on the evening he made the will were low and did not affect testamentary capacity.

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