High Court Upholds 19th Century Test For Mental Capacity

Choosing to challenge a Will is not a decision to be taken lightly.  Any experienced, highly-regarded Civil Litigation Solicitor will tell you that testamentary freedom is a cherished part of English law and not one that the Courts are prepared to readily tamper with.  However, there are some cases where it is abundantly clear that something went wrong when the Will was made, and the Courts must intervene. 

The recent High Court decision in Re Clitheroe (Deceased) [2021] EWHC 1102 (Ch) is an example of where the Courts will uphold a challenge to a Will.  Furthermore, it confirmed that despite being decided in 1869, the test for testamentary capacity set out in Banks v Goodfellow remained good law.

The background to the decision

The Respondent, Sue Bond was almost entirely cut out of her mother’s Will.  The Testator called the Respondent a ‘shopaholic’ and believed her daughter would ‘fritter away’ any money left to her.  The Testator had also accused the Respondent of stealing various items from her home including her treasured set of Harry Potter books.  Therefore, she bequeathed most of her estate to the Appellant, Ms Bond’s brother.

The County Court Judge found that the Testator’s beliefs were irrational to the point of being delusional.  He also accepted expert evidence that showed the Testator was suffering from an affective disorder which included a complex grief reaction and depression which impaired her testamentary capacity.

Ms Bond’s brother appealed the decision on the grounds that the County Court Judge should not have applied the Banks v Goodfellows test and instead should have applied the test under the Mental Capacity Act 2005.  He also argued that the Judge had misapplied the test regarding whether the Testator suffered from delusions when he said it was not necessary to prove that she could not be talked out of her beliefs.

The High Court’s ruling

The High Court reviewed the case law which confirmed that the Banks test had not been superseded by the Mental Capacity Act 2005.  Under the Banks test, the following needs to be present for testamentary capacity to exist:

  • The Testator must understand the nature of making a will and its effects.
  • The Testator must understand the extent of the property of which they are disposing.
  • The Testator must be able to understand and appreciate the claims to which they ought to give effect (i.e. who can bring a claim against the Will).
  • The Testator must have no disorder of the mind that perverts their sense of right or prevents the exercise of their natural faculties in disposing of their property by Will.

The Court observed that there was nothing within the Mental Capacity Act 2005 indicating that determining the validity of a Will was one of its purposes or powers.  Although it was important not to simplify the distinction between the test for capacity under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and the Banks test to merely one of whether the person whose capacity is in question is living or dead, it was relatively clear from the terms of the Act that Parliament did not intend to alter the common law test for testamentary capacity provided by the 152-year-old case.

Regarding the correct test for delusion, the Court once again turned to an ancient case, that of Dew v Clark and Clark 162 E.R. 410, [1826] 1 WLUK 63 which established the legal concept of ‘insane delusion’ –  a Testator’s false conception of reality that may invalidate a Will altogether, or one or more of its provisions.  For a delusion to exist, it had to be:

  • more than a simple mistake that could be corrected
  • irrational and fixed in nature, and
  • out of keeping with the Testator’s background.

Justice Falk concluded that Dew did not lay down an absolute rule that a delusion could only exist if it were shown that it was impossible to reason the Testator out of the belief. 

The case was adjourned for three months to offer the siblings a chance to reach an agreement without the expense and distress of a further Court hearing.

Comments 

This case is one of many clarifying that the Banks v Goodfellow test remains good law in testamentary capacity cases.  Further test cases will inevitably be brought in the future, however, for now, the Courts have made clear that Banks may be an ‘oldy’ but it is still a ‘goody’.

Please note that this blog is intended for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. 

Tax and Trusts in the Cryptic Cryptosphere

Bitcoin, Ethereum, even Dogecoin – many will have been scratching their heads in recent months over the latest mania to grip the nation and the wider financial community. We could talk about non-fungible tokens (also known as NFTs), but it is perhaps best to leave that aside for now. This article looks at the growth of cryptoassets and it can form part of an estate for tax purposes. 

Current estimates put the market capitalisation of all cryptoassets at around $2 trillion following an astronomical surge in interest and investment so far in 2021. This burgeoning market and its underlying asset class is the internet’s gold with a new generation of investors rushing to reap the initial gains, even with the plentiful supply of critics and naysayers.

What might appear to be 2021’s version of the late 1990s dotcom bubble or 1636’s tulip mania, institutional investment is on its way and, with that, wider societal acceptance and faith in this new asset class. By way of comparison, the total value of the world’s gold is estimated to be around $9 trillion and the value of all global investments (including publicly traded shares, bonds and real estate etc) is around $360 trillion. By comparison, the market capitalisation of cryptoassets is not yet even 25% the size of gold and less than 0.3% of the value of all globally invested wealth.  

To understand cryptocurrency, let us consider gold further. Gold has been in circulation for  the purposes of trading and as a store of value since time immemorial. It is a curious metal as it serves little practical purpose in industry, but it has retained its value over time due to two fundamental characteristics: its attractive appearance and use in jewellery and, most importantly of all, its finite supply. Markets fluctuate, but supply and demand are its essential forces. For what is a marketplace other than the convergence of human sentiment and feeling in a financial context? For there to be demand for gold, there has to be widespread faith and acceptance not just in the value of the asset but also the knowledge that you own something that not everyone has but that everyone, potentially, wants. Enter cryptoassets…

Let us talk tax, shall we?

Rather than delving too deeply into this cryptic world and championing its merits as an asset class, let us turn to the more wearisome world of tax and estate planning.  We are witnessing a seismic transfer in wealth from traditional capital assets to cryptoassets and investors are increasingly asking how their assets might be taxed and how they should be held both during their lifetime and on death.  

First and foremost, what is a crytoasset? HMRC appear to have also been scratching their institutional head in recent years and perhaps, to the displeasure of some, we finally have some certainty on their interpretation. Of course, we should not forget that this is a fast changing area and HMRC’s interpretation is not yet enshrined in law. We should not, however, underestimate HMRC’s efforts to legislate in the absence of legislation

Importantly, HMRC does not consider cryptoassets to be currency or money.

For individuals, anyone disposing of cryptoassets will be subject to UK capital gains tax (CGT) on the gain, and the gain should be reported on their self-assessment tax return.

There is some possibility, however remote, that HMRC considers that an individual’s activities fall under the category of trading as they are buying and selling the assets on an ongoing basis. HMRC will evaluate each case on its fact and will consider factors such the frequency, level of organisation and sophistication whereby such activities could constitute trading. To the disappointment of avid crypto investors, for UK tax purposes, profits will be treated as income and so be subject to UK income tax and not CGT. This would invariably mean that trading in cryptoassets attracts a higher rate of tax than if an investor bought cryptoassets and disposed of their holdings as a later date. Investors should be aware of this possibility at the outset.

There is, however, one curious cultural characteristic of the crypto community: HODLing. This term was popularised after an early crypto investor explained that his strategy with Bitcoin was to HODL, a clear misspelling of the world HOLD. In more recent years, HODL has become the defining feature of the crypto world and now means that you intend to Hold On for Dear Life and therefore never sell! The expectation is that by HODLing, investors will limit the supply of cryptoassets on the market and therefore inflate the price as demand continues to rise.

Now, naturally, if an investor is ‘sitting’ on and not realising a gain then no tax arises in such circumstances. However, given the UK’s current debt crisis, perhaps the government will ponder a wealth tax which could target holdings of wealth including cryptoassets. This is will be an area to watch in the coming months.

Where is my asset located for tax purposes?

For the majority of clients who are UK resident and domiciled for UK tax purposes, HMRC will treat your disposals of cryptoassets in the same way that they would treat any gain arising anywhere in the world, namely that it falls into the UK tax net. For UK resident non-UK domiciled clients, the answer is far less straightforward. To summarise, individuals who are resident but not domiciled here will pay tax only on their UK source income and gains and on non-UK source income and gains only to the extent that they are remitted (ie brought back) to the UK.

As for cryptoassets, how do we determine whether they are UK situated or not and therefore whether they fall into the UK tax net for non-domiciled individuals? Cryptoassets are intangible and digital assets comprising a set of code that is recorded on a decentralised ledger also known as blockchain. As there is no central register or geographically identifiable ledger, the usual rules on determining the situs of intangible assets are thrown up into the air.

HMRC released guidance at the end of 2019 setting out their view that the taxpayer’s cryptoassets are situated in the jurisdiction of the taxpayer’s residence. We assume that HMRC is referring to tax residence (determined by the UK’s Statutory Residence Test) and not habitual residence. The consequence of this, to the extent that it is upheld and perhaps passed into law at a later date, is that a non-domiciled individual who is tax resident in the UK will pay UK tax on the disposal of their cryptoassets merely because they are resident in the UK for tax purposes. This is a departure from the typical rules relating to the remittance basis of taxation (applicable to many UK resident non-doms) such that these individuals can no longer shelter ALL of their offshore income and gains from the UK tax net.

A practical example best illustrates this departure from the rules. Mr X has been tax resident in the UK for the past five years but has not acquired a domicile of choice in the UK and nor is he considered deemed UK domiciled under the 15/20 year rule. Mr X makes a purchase of 50 ETH (the underlying coin on the Ethereum blockchain platform) and the transaction takes place through an offshore exchange using funds from an offshore bank account so that there is no UK nexus to the transaction. A year later, Mr X decides to dispose of his ETH, triggering a substantial gain and Mr X subsequently transfers the sale funds from the exchange to an offshore bank account. In such circumstances, as Mr X is UK tax resident as the time of the disposal he will have made a remittance of the 50 ETH and the gain will be subject to CGT in the UK irrespective of the offshore element and the applicability of the remittance basis of taxation.

What about succession planning and trusts?

This is where the complication really begins to add up. Focusing on lifetime trusts and the relevant property regime (effectively UK trusts with non-excluded property), an individual (the settlor) is liable to a UK inheritance tax (IHT) entry charge of 20% when assets go into the trust, to the extent that the value of the assets exceeds the settlor’s available nil rate band (currently £325,000). If the value of the assets falls below the available nil rate band, it follows that there is no immediate charge to IHT.

The transfer into trust may also trigger a gain for CGT purposes when the cryptoassets are settled on trust, as the transfer is treated as a disposal. In this scenario, it may be possible to claim hold-over relief. This relief has the effect of deferring CGT whereby the base cost will be the original acquisition cost and this is used when calculating the CGT due on a subsequent distribution from the trust. The relief is not obtained automatically but is instead claimed by the trustees and the recipient of the asset and notified to HMRC following certain formalities.

The availability of the nil rate band to mitigate IHT and hold-over relief to defer CGT are all well and good, but there is one major stumbling block – valuation. Using residential property as an example, the market for bricks and mortar is steady and stable, and a valuation three days before a transfer into trust is unlikely to change when the transfer is effect. With publicly listed shares, the market opens and closes at fixed times (closed over weekends and Bank Holidays) and so a valuation at market close is not a complex scientific endeavour. With cryptocurrency, the challenges are far greater. For starters, the market never closes as there is no centrally located exchange. To make matters worse, the crypto market remains extremely volatile and a so-called well-performing cryptoasset could swing 10% up or 10% down in one day – perhaps even as much within a single hour at midnight when UK taxpayers are asleep!

How, therefore, is the value of cryptoassets determined for the purposes of creating or even dismantling trusts? The same issues arise with Will trusts. If, say, the testator creates a discretionary trust for the benefit of his children on death, do we look at the very minute of death to determine the value of the cryptoassets going into trust? Many questions remain and it is beyond doubt that HMRC will be thinking of ways to claw as much tax as possible, however difficult it may be to value these assets.

Practical considerations for Cryptoassets 

In an increasingly digitised world, passwords are practically as valuable as the assets that they protect. Cryptoassets are now commonly stored in a digital wallet, which can be stored online or on external hard drives. Storage and security are clearly of paramount importance to the crypto world. The major takeaway from this is that cryptoassets are only valuable if you have the key to access them. If an individual owning £1 million of Bitcoin does not share the password and provide access to his intended beneficiaries of his estate, the estate would be treated as if it never owned the Bitcoin and the beneficiaries would never receive the benefit. The Bitcoin would be irretrievably lost and no value could ever be obtained. Of course, this would mean that the Bitcoins cannot attract IHT on death as the value has been lost. This is arguably one of those circumstances where a substantial IHT bill would be very well received.

Take the example of James Howells from Newport, Wales. Mr Howells owned 7,500 Bitcoins on an external hard drive, which he accidentally threw away in 2013 when cryptocurrency was worthless by today’s standards. On today’s prices, this crypto holding would be worth somewhere in the region of £300 million and unless the hard drive can be extracted from landfill and the data recovered, that value will be forever lost.

For this reason, it is essential that clients consider leaving a confidential side letter to the executors and trustees of their estate setting out their passwords and any other relevant information relating to access of valuable data and cryptoassets. Of course, this document will have to be kept under lock and key, given its implicit value, with access to it only shared with only the most intimate family members.

Our specialist tax advisers at OGR Stock Denton will be well placed to guide you through the tax regime relating to cryptoassets and would be delighted to advise further. 

If you would like to discuss any of the above issues, please contact Ben Rosen, on 020 8349 0321 or by email

Please note that this blog is intended for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. 

Understanding Testamentary Capacity

The number of Wills being challenged over the past decade has risen consistently, and it is easy to see why.  The stakes are much higher given the increase in house prices, meaning that many peoples assets are now worth hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of pounds. Furthermore, the younger generation are struggling to get on the housing ladder, and are increasingly reliant and / or expecting to receive an inheritance to do so. At this point, you may be wondering what Will disputes have to do with testamentary capacity. The the answer is that if a Will is not entered into with full understanding, it may be challenged and be declared invalid. 

What is testamentary capacity, and how is it established?

The word ‘testamentary’, in this case, refers to the act of bequeathing through a Will.  ‘Capacity’ refers to the cognitive ability of the testator (the person making the Will) to enter into the Will in a way that they fully understand.  Hence if a Will is entered into by a person who lacks the mental capacity to comprehend the implications of what is being stated, this would be considered to be a lack of testamentary capacity and will likely render the Will invalid. 

If the last Will is declared invalid the estate will be administered under the terms of the previous Will (if one exists) or under the rules of intestacy. This is a formula sued to distribute an estate if there is no will.  

Solicitors and other legal practitioners specialising in Wills must check that they are satisfied someone has testamentary capacity when taking instructions for a Will for a client. By doing so, its validity is less likely to be challenged following death. 

The risk with online and DIY Wills is that, in addition to the lack of professional legal guidance to ensure the Will is drafted to reflect all of the necessary provisions and life scenarios for your situation, it will lack evidence that checks were undertaken to verify capacity.  A professional Wills Solicitor will go out of their way to secure the proof needed, including requesting contemporaneous medical opinion, asking a medical professional to witness the Will, and attaching any other proof of capacity to the Will.

There are two main tests used by the Courts to prove testamentary capacity:

Banks v Goodfellow Test (Case law test)

 This common law test relates to the case of Banks v Goodfellow (1870), which used the following criteria to test for the existence of testamentary capacity:

  • The testator must understand the nature of making a will and its effects.
  • The testator must understand the extent of the property of which they are disposing.
  • The testator must be able to understand and appreciate the claims to which they ought to give effect (i.e. who can bring a claim against the Will).
  • The testator must have no disorder of the mind that perverts their sense of right or prevents the exercise of their natural faculties in disposing of his property by Will.

Despite being over 150 years old, the Banks v Goodfellow test has stood the test of time due to its clarity, the fact it is based on case law principles going back three centuries, and because it covers the elements necessary to establish an all-round understanding of what is being entered into.

The Mental Capacity Act 2005 (MCA 2005)

 The MCA statutory test uses five core principles to establish mental capacity, as follows:

  1. A presumption of capacity – everyone has the right to make his or her own decisions and must be assumed to have capacity unless proved otherwise
  2. The right for individuals to be supported to make their own decisions – people should be given the necessary assistance before it can be concluded they are unable to make their own decisions
  3. Individuals have the right to make what might be seen as eccentric or unwise decisions
  4. Best interests – anything done for or on behalf of people without capacity must be in their best interests; and
  5. Least restrictive intervention – anything done for or on behalf of people without capacity should be the least restrictive of their basic rights and freedoms.

The MCA 2005 test for capacity was not intended to replace the Banks v Goodfellow test; rather the intention was to allow judges to make their own decision as to which would be most applicable.  However, the High Court case of James v James and others [2018], confirmed that the Banks v Goodfellow test should be applied when assessing mental capacity in relation to making a Will.

Ensuring testamentary capacity for your Will

Establishing testamentary capacity at the time of Will creation will mitigate the potential for it to later challenged.  For solicitors, ensuring their client understands what they are entering into and providing supporting evidence where necessary is a paramount consideration.  By failing to undertake this key step, a well-drafted Will, with all elements considered, witnessed, and signed correctly, could be rendered useless via a challenge.  Don’t cut corners and allow your Will to be judged invalid due to concerns over capacity – your loved ones deserve certainty that your wishes were made with sound mind and judgment.

If you would like to discuss any of the above issues, please contact Ian Pearl, on 020 8349 5506 or by email

Please note that this blog is intended for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.