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Dependent Relative Revocation

This is a somewhat obscure doctrine which was referenced in a recent interesting case in the High Court. The case was ‘In the Matter of the Estate of John Coughlan, deceased’ and the decision was delivered by Ms. Justice Butler on the 3rd November 2022.

John Coughlan, now deceased, had made a will with his solicitor in 2012. In that will, his estate, which was worth approximately €250,000 was left, in the main, to be divided in four shares. He was not married and had no children. Later in 2015, he made a new will with his solicitor, adding a fifth beneficiary.

When you make a new will there is a clause revoking any former wills made. The 2015 will had this clause and so the 2012 will was revoked, leaving the 2015 will to stand.

However, after he made the 2015 will, Mr. Coughlan wanted to remove the newly added fifth beneficiary. He met his solicitor and asked them to revoke the 2015 will. His solicitor incorrectly advised that he could tear up the new will and that would revoke it, and the 2012 will would be revived. They did not take into account the 2015 will having a revocation clause. It is clear that Mr. Coughlan relied on the advice given and believed he had revived his 2012 will.

Originally the Executors applied to take out a grant of probate with the 2012 will, however after taking counsel’s advice they applied to cancel that grant and to take out a new grant with the 2015 will on the basis of the doctrine of dependent relative revocation.

The doctrine essentially states that if the revocation is based on a mistaken belief or is conditional on an event which does not happen, it is ineffective. Mr. Coughlan believed that when he tore up the 2015 will, this would revive the 2012 will. Because this was not correct, the court held that the revocation was ineffective and so the 2015 will was not revoked.

It was accepted that this was not entirely satisfactory given that Mr. Coughlan had intended to disinherit the fifth beneficiary and of course the consequent reduction in benefit of the other four. However the court also noted that given that the solicitor had given incorrect advice that had led to a reduction in the amount taken by the other four beneficiaries, their loss could be dealt with by way of an action against the solicitor.

An obscure doctrine which had very real consequences, it goes to show that great care must always be taken around the making of wills and all the formalities need to be attended to in order to ensure a persons’ wishes in making a will are carried out in the future.

About the author: Margaret O’Connell is an Associate Solicitor and a qualified Trust and Estate Practitioner ( TEP) and is a member of STEP international.


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