The case of Longmuir v. Holland, 2000 BCCA 538 is a tale the presumption of undue influence and testamentary incapacity; and a dispute between two nieces of a widow who passed away with no children of her own. Both nieces hoped to inherit their aunt’s house.
In 1983 the aunt entered an agreement with one of the nieces, Ms. Holland, under which Ms. Holland and her husband would live with her aunt in exchange for certain services. Four months after making the agreement, the aunt changed ownership of the house so that the Hollands were joint tenant owners. The relationship between them became strained and in 1986 the aunt severed the joint tenancy and made a new will leaving her estate to Ms. Longmuir, her other niece. Ms. Holland retained her interest in the house, and when the Hollands separated Mr. Holland assigned his one-third interest to Ms. Holland. Then in 1990 the aunt made a further will dividing the estate between both nieces and two other people. Finally, in 1991, she made another will leaving her estate to Ms. Holland. At that time, Ms. Holland was still living with the aunt and continued to live with her until she passed away. Ms. Longmuir sought to have the 1991 will declared invalid as a result of the aunt’s mental incapacity or undue influence on the part of Ms. Holland.
There was no direct medical evidence regarding the aunt’s testamentary capacity in 1990 and 1991, but there was evidence that by 1992 she lacked such competence. The doctor who examined her in 1992 also noted that Ms. Holland was overprotective and overbearing, and thought that the aunt would at this time have been susceptible to undue influence. Ms. Holland gave evidence that the aunt had testamentary capacity in 1991, but the trial judge questioned the truth of Ms. Holland’s evidence and put very little weight on it. He found that the 1990 will was valid, but also found that the Hollands might have unduly influenced the aunt with respect to the transfer of an interest in the home to them, and so he set aside the transfer of the property on the grounds of public policy.
A presumption of undue influence?
The Court of Appeal allowed the appeal in part. The majority found that the aunt had the opportunity for independent legal advice and understood the advantages and disadvantages of transferring the property into joint ownership in 1984. However, the majority went on to find that there were enough suspicious circumstances surrounding the aunt’s testamentary capacity and the presumption of undue influence by Ms. Holland as to render the 1991 will invalid. In particular, the majority noted that the aunt was found to be incapable in 1992 and in the doctor’s opinion her decline had likely been happening for some time. Additionally, there was evidence to the effect that Ms. Holland made it difficult for the aunt’s relatives to even see her after the 1991 will was executed, and that Ms. Holland controlled the aunt’s mail and prevented her from replying to letters.
The final word
When a person who is in a position to exercise a dominating influence over another receives a substantial benefit from that other, there is a presumption of undue influence. Far from rebutting the presumption, the evidence supported the conclusion that Ms. Holland unduly influenced her aunt.