The High Court considers a Will forgery claim worth £35m
6 July 2021
On 16 June 2021, Deputy Master Bowles handed down judgment in the case of Sangha v The Estate of Dilijit Kaur Sangha & Others  EWHC 1599 (Ch) following a hybrid trial which took place over 10 days between October and December last year.
The case was complex to say the least with the trial involving two separate claims as well as dealing with issues of bankruptcy. Even after judgment was handed down there remain disputed issues relating to domicile and the validity of the deceased’s marriage which will require further directions from the Court. In any event, it is perhaps not surprising that disputes arose in this case, with a multitude of familial relationships and a combined Indian and English estate worth in excess of £35m.
The family background
The dispute relates to the estate of Hartar Sangha who died in 2016 (Hartar) leaving his ‘widow’, Jaswinder Sangha (Jaswinder), and their son, Harbiksun Sangha. Hartar also had two older children; Sundeep Sangha (Sundeep) and Mandi Vanderpuye (Mandi), from his ‘former’ marriage with Diljit Sangha (Diljit), who died during the course of the proceedings. Finally, Hartar left a sister named Jagpal Sangha (Jagpal).
The validity of Hartar’s marriage to Jaswinder, which came about as a result of a marriage ceremony in India in 1992, remains a live issue between the parties as Hartar had, in fact, held himself out to be married to Diljit for many years prior to 1992 and that marriage was not brought to an end by any divorce proceedings either before or after his wedding to Jaswinder. As mentioned above, until this issue is resolved the final outcome of the case remains unclear.
The Court was asked to deal with two claims at trial; first, a claim by Jaswinder contending that a Will made by Hartar in 2007 (the 2007 Will), which left his entire English and Indian estates to her, was his last valid Will (the probate claim). The defendants to the probate claim were Sundeep, Mandi and Diljit’s estate. The second claim was also made by Jaswinder but issued against Sundeep only. By that claim, Jaswinder asked the Court to make a declaration that Sundeep was not entitled to any legal or beneficial interest in a property in Brentford which had been registered in the joint names of Hartar and Jaswinder during Hartar’s lifetime and which had passed to Jaswinder by survivorship on his death. Jaswinder also asked the Court to grant an injunction preventing Sundeep from interfering with the property. Sundeep issued a counterclaim to seek a declaration that he was, in fact, the sole beneficial owner of a number of properties based on the doctrine of proprietary estoppel (the proprietary estoppel claim).
Deputy Master Bowles decided that the probate claim and the proprietary estoppel claim were intertwined to the extent that “the outcome, or result of the probate might, it is said, impinge upon the relief to be granted in the property claim” and so he held that it was necessary to deal with them both at the trial which took place late last year.
The probate claim
The validity of the 2007 Will was “hotly disputed” by Sundeep, Mandi and Diljit’s estate who alleged that the Will had been concocted by, or on behalf of, Jaswinder and that the entirety of the evidence as to its creation and execution was invented and untrue. They argued that the 2007 Will was invalid due to forgery or, alternatively, lack of due execution. They also contested that a Will made by Hartar in 1979 (the 1979 Will) was his last valid Will in relation to his English estate and that a Will made by him in 2003 related only to his Indian estate. The 1979 Will left everything to Sundeep, Mandi and Diljit.
During the course of the proceedings, Jagpal produced an additional Will executed in 2016, shortly before Hartar’s death (the 2016 Will). The 2016 Will revoked all previous Wills and left Hartar’s Indian estate to Diljit and his three children in equal shares. Jaswinder challenged the validity of the 2016 Will on the ground of forgery or, in the alternative, she argued that its revocation clause did not revoke the 2007 Will in relation to the English estate. Sundeep and Mandi remained neutral in relation to Jaswinder’s challenge to the 2016 Will but, in the event that it was held to be valid, it was their contention that it revoked all previous Wills; if this was the case then Hartar’s English estate would pass under the Intestacy Rules.
In reaching his decision, Deputy Master Bowles relied upon the rule established in re Dellow’s Will Trusts  1 WLR 451, which states that “the more serious the allegation, the more cogent is the evidence required to overcome the unlikelihood of what is alleged and thus prove it”. In any event, the burden of proof remains with the person seeking to propound the Will to evidence its authenticity.
Ultimately, the Deputy Master found that Jagpal met the burden of proof in relation to the 2016 Will. He was satisfied that her evidence was not invented and that no other party had produced sufficient evidence to demonstrate that a forgery had taken place. He found that the 2016 Will was valid and revoked all previous Wills, including the 2007 Will, which was, itself, a valid Will. The Court’s decision means that Hartar’s English estate will be distributed according to the intestacy provisions and will benefit Sundeep, Mandi and Harbiksun. It remains to be seen, however, whether Jaswinder will also benefit as a surviving spouse.
The proprietory estoppel claim
In order to determine this claim, the Court needed to decide whether Sundeep was the sole beneficial owner of a number of properties which his father had owned in joint names with Jaswinder prior to his death. Sundeep relied on promises made to him by Hartar that he would inherit his English estate which, he argued, he had then relied on to his detriment by working for the family business for little, or no, return. He asked the Court to find that his father’s promises had resulted in an equity arising in his favour before the properties had been transferred into joint names and so superseded any interest which Jaswinder purported to have.
Deputy Master Bowles rejected Sundeep’s claim finding that, although Hartar had indeed made promises to Sundeep, there was no evidence that Sundeep had relied on those promises to his detriment. The Court also took the view that Sundeep had received enough from Hartar during his lifetime to satisfy any equity which had arisen. The proprietary estoppel claim failed.
A further complication: the bankruptcy
In addition to the two claims, the Court also had to consider the effect of Hartar’s bankruptcy (which was later annulled) on the ownership of properties held in the joint names of Hartar and Jaswinder which were worth in the region of £9m. Ultimately, it was decided that the annulment of the bankruptcy did not change the fact that the beneficial joint tenancies had been severed when Hartar was made bankrupt and so his share of the properties did pass into his estate.
This case was by no means straightforward and required the Deputy Master to grapple with a number of issues, including the very high evidential burden which will apply in cases where forgery of a Will is alleged. The specialist Contentious Trusts and Probate Team at Birketts have a wealth of experience in dealing with all types of claims relating to the validity of Wills and beneficial interests in property and can assist you, whether you are seeking to bring a claim or to defend one.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at July 2021.