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Court sets aside wills in family dispute over dementia

A Supreme Court judge has set aside two wills at the heart of a family dispute after finding that they were penned while the signatory was suffering from dementia.

While the court heard that Cedelle Fraser left two properties to her son, Bertram Fraser, in a pair of wills signed in 2018, her daughter, Lauretta Stoneham, said Mrs Fraser did not have the capacity to execute the documents.

She further alleged that her brother had undue influence over Mrs Fraser when the wills were changed.

In a judgment released last week, Puisne Judge Larry Mussenden said that based on expert evidence heard in the court, he believed that Mrs Fraser had begun to suffer from dementia before the final two wills were penned.

However, he said that he was not satisfied that Mrs Fraser had promised the property to Ms Stoneham.

The court heard that the dispute focused on one of two Pembroke properties that had been passed to Mrs Fraser by her father, Jonathan Edness, when he died in 1975.

Mrs Fraser had signed six wills before her death in December 2019.

While one of the two properties, Aurora House, was gifted to Mr Fraser in all six wills, the fate of the second property, Wisdom Manor, changed.

In a will signed in April 2017, Mrs Fraser said she wished to gift Wisdom Manor to her five children with equal shares.

However, that was changed in a May 2018 will, which promised both properties to Bertram Fraser with her “wish and desire” for Wisdom House to be used as a guesthouse for as long as possible with her five children sharing in the proceeds.

Another will, dated October 2018, granted both properties to Bertram Fraser with no provisions for the proceeds from Wisdom House to be divided.

Ms Stoneham called on the court to set aside both the 2018 wills and asked the court to give her the title to Wisdom Manor on the basis that she had made financial investments in the property based on a promise by Mrs Fraser that she would inherit it.

Mr Fraser, however, denied that their mother was not of sound mind when she signed the wills or that he had any undue influence over her.

Ms Stoneham and Mr Fraser put forward expert witnesses to give evidence about Mrs Fraser’s mental health.

Mr Justice Mussenden said that both experts found that an assessment carried out in 2018 had been miscalculated and that, considering the family’s concerns about Mrs Fraser’s short-term memory, dementia was a more likely diagnosis than “mild cognitive impairment”.

The court heard from witnesses who said that Mrs Fraser had become forgetful, told stories about things that did not happen, became confused about where she was and even failed to recognise her home.

“Mrs Fraser was suffering from dementia in 2018. Both experts agreed that in 2019 she was most likely suffering from vascular dementia,” the judge said.

“Also, her family have made reports of her loss of short-term memory and loss of ability to care for herself prior to November 2018.

“In my view, the more likely view is that, despite some improvement in some functions, Mrs Fraser was suffering from the degenerative disease that was progressing along the spectrum over a period of time as she was also suffering from a number of other ailments including having had a stroke previously.”

Mr Justice Mussenden said that in the circumstances, he was not satisfied that Mrs Fraser had the capacity to sign the 2018 wills and that the changes were “irrational” in light of the background.

“She may very well have favoured Bertram’s decisions on care, subject to her dementia, but to take the drastic step of disinheriting four of her children in favour of Bertram because of Lauretta’s efforts seems clearly delusionary,” he said.

“Thus, I am satisfied that Mrs Fraser had insane delusions that were influencing her to dispose of the two properties in a way that she would not have had her mind been sound or she was not suffering from dementia.”

Mr Justice Mussenden said he was also satisfied that Bertram Fraser had undue influence over his mother, stating that his actions “smack of an unnecessary preoccupation to isolate Mrs Fraser from other members of her family and extended family and friends”.

In the circumstances, the judge declared that Mrs Fraser was not of sound mind, memory or understanding and lacked the requisite mental capacity to execute either of the 2018 wills, setting them aside.

However, he declined to convey the property to Ms Stoneham, stating that he was not satisfied that Mrs Fraser had promised the property to her and that the amount she had invested in the property was not a “substantial expenditure”.

Mr Justice Mussenden said that while a 2006 will did gift the property to her, subsequent wills either called for the property to be shared by all five siblings or go to Mr Fraser.

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