top of page
  • Dr Carlos Bugeja

The challenge of challenging a will

by Dr Carlos Bugeja - Partner



The law of succession has one principal purpose - to ensure that the assets of an individual are, upon his death, distributed in accordance to his last wishes. The law aims at establishing rules that makes it easier for these wishes to be clearly identified and adhered to. It makes rules laying down formalities to be strictly followed, and makes sure that only legally competent persons are able to dispose of their assets causa mortis (upon death). The idea is that after one passes away, his or her assets are distributed according to that person's last wishes.


Unfortunately however, the main objective of the will is often defeated, and in many cases, the opposite occurs, due to external forces. It is for this reason that the contents of the will are looked at with great scrutiny and caution.


Issues concerning the validity of the will become a serious issue, particularly in situations where the testamentary wishes provided for in the will do not appear to be consistent with the testator's actions whilst still alive. It is for this purpose that the law provides for the faculty of an individual to contest the validity of a will on the basis that it was made by the testator under the undue influence of another person. Undue influence may take different forms; it does not necessarily have to be physical coercion, but can also be evident in circumstances where significant pressure is put on a weak and feeble testator.


Our courts adhere to this prevalent line of thought. The requisites for such an action to succeed are best encompassed in the words of the Court of Appeal in the judgment in the names of Vincent Cachia v. Carmelo Cachia et (15/02/1957 – Vol. 41B (1957), p 83):


"F'kawza fejn jigi mpunjat testment ghalex dan "sar fuq zeghil u/jew qerq tal-konvenuti li approfittaw ruhhom mill-istat mentali deficjenti tat-testatur u/jew fuq pressjoni ezervitata fuq it-testatur minn hadd iehor, b'mod li l-volonta' tat-testatur kienet ghall-anqas vizzjata", din il-premessa, rettament interpretata, ghandha titqies fis-sens illi t-testatur kien fi stat mentali debboli, u mhabba f'hekk il-pretiz zeghil u qerq da parti thal-konvenuti, u pressjoni da parti ta' hadd iehor, kellhom l-effett li huwa, minghajr ma ried, gie kostrett jaghmel id-dispozizzjonijiet testamentarji mpunjati, li fuq dan il-motiv l-attur isostni li huma nulli u ta' ebda effett minhabba nuqqas jew vizzju tal-kunsens da parti tat-testatur.


(...)


L-ghemil dolu jew qerq huwa motiv ta' nullita' meta l-inganni wzati jkunu tali li minghajrhom it-testatur ma kienx jaghmel id-dispozizzjonijiet testamentarji mpunjati. In kwantu ghall-vjolenza, din, biex tivvizzja l-kunsens, trid tkun tali li taghmel impressjoni fuq persuna ragjonevoli, u ggielgha tibza' li hija jew hwejjigha jigu esposti ingustament f'perikolu ta' hsaras kbira, mehudin in konsiderazzjoni l-eta', is-sess u l-kondizzjoni ta' dik il-persuna, b'mod li t-testatur ma kienx liberu li jaghzel u jaghmel dak li kien jixtieq, imma, biex jevita l-minaccja ta' dammu gravi kif fuq specifikat, jaghzel u jaghmel dak li jrid hadd iehor. Billi t-testatur jaghmel dak li xtaqet persuna ohra, u biex jikkuntentaha, ma jistax jigi rirenut li hu ghamel it-testment kontra l-volonta' tieghu u mhabba vjolenza fuqu ezercitata. Biex l-impunjativa tirnexxi, hemm bzonn jirrizulta li l-volonta' tat-testatur giet b'xi mod alterata b'qerq jew bi vjolenza, u illi t-testatur ma kienx jiddisponi fit-testment kif iddispona kieku ma kienx l-izball li sab ruhu fih minhabba l-vjolenza li ngannatu."


Of course, it is never easy to successfully challenge a will. Firstly, the validity of a will is always presumed, and remains the default position until or unless the contrary is proven. Moreover, these cases are often characterised by conflicting presentations of the 'facts', where each party usually takes on a mission in order to prove that he or she (and not the other party) is the worthy heir of the deceased. Unfortunately, these cases are many times very difficult for courts to decide upon, since the main actor (the deceased testator) is obviously unable to shed light on the actual truth. Indeed, these kind of cases are often characterised by high emotions, and long-driven contests.


As explained by the Court of Appeal in Ken. Dekan Francesco Camilleri et v. Salvina Camilleri (Volume 33A, p 73, 19/05/1947), for this action to succeed, the claimant has to prove that the testator had the will to prepare a will or to change an existing one, but did not because of an external act of a third party consisting in violence or fraud.


In this respect, the jurist Triola retains that the dispositions applicable to the annullability of contracts in general are applicable, in principle, also to the annullability of wills. Whilst referring to another jurist, Gangi, as an authority on this matter, he qualifies this however by considering that “nei testamenti può dar luoco ad annullabilità anche una violenza meno grave di quella richiesta per l’annullamento dei contratti e ciò sia per la maggiore rilevanza che si deve attribuire alla libertà e alla spontaneità della formazione della volontà del testaztore”. This is very interesting, since what Gangi is saying here is that the gravity usually requested by courts to annul a bilateral contract (such as a contract of sale) may be of a lesser degree for the Court to annul a will. This, Gangi explains, is since the will is a unilateral act done only in the testator's interests, whilst a contract necessitates a previous understanding and agreement with another party.


Triola justifies this for the fact that:


“...il testamento è un atto unilaterale di disposizione di bene a titolo gratuito ed a causa di more con coi il testatore può derogare in tutto o in parte alle regole poste dalla legge per la successione ab intestato, e dato anche che in esso viene in considerazione soltanto l’interesse del testatore a che si attribuisca efficacia alla suo volontà solo quando essa si è liberamente determinata, non anche l’interesse di altre persone, in particolare debli ered e dei legatari istituiti, giacché l’interessi di costoro non può esse preso in considerazione che quanto la volontà del testatore si é liberamente e spontaneamente determinata a manifestata, mentre nei contratti, oltre che dell’interesse del dichiarante, s deve anche tener contro dell’affidamento che la dichiarazione ha potuto far sorgere nell’altro conraente. Sarebbe, pertanto, sufficiente che la violenza sia stata tale da avera, date le particolari circostanz del caso, spinto il testatore a disporre diversamente da come egli avrebbe disposto se la sua volontà non fosse state coartata, perchè il testamento sia invalido.


This view is very interesting, but it must be said that one cannot say that it has so far been consistently adopted by Maltese courts. Indeed, generally speaking, Maltese courts have always been very reluctant to annul wills, and today, the task of successfully challenging a will is still quite a tall order.


Dr Carlos Bugeja is Partner at PROLEGAL Advocates.

 

Disclaimer: This article is not to be construed as being legal advice, and is not to be acted on as such. Should you require further information or legal assistance, please do not hesitate to contact Dr Carlos Bugeja at carlos@prolegal.mt.



Related Posts

See All

Comentários


bottom of page