Heffernan v Innes & Anor [2021] NSWSC 1033

15 August 2022

The main question for the Court in this case was whether the suicide note found near the deceased’s body was intended by him to form his last will. A secondary question for the Court was whether the deceased had the requisite capacity to form those intentions in circumstances where the evidence suggested that he had consumed a large quantity of alcohol and was intoxicated at the time that he created the document.

The defendants (the deceased’s mother and brother) argued, unsuccessfully, that this rendered him ‘cognitively impaired’ at the time that he created the suicide note. This is because there was insufficient evidence for the Court to conclude, on the basis that he had consumed even a large quantity of alcohol, that he lacked testamentary capacity or that he did not know and approve of the informal document. The alcohol consumption alone was insufficient to show that it detrimentally affected cognition or judgment, nor was it a bar to establishing testamentary capacity.

The Court upheld a number of authorities stating, as a starting point, that:

  • the fact that the informal document is a suicide note does not mean that it is incapable of being admitted as a testamentary document;
  • the suicide of the will-maker does not give rise to any presumption of testamentary incapacity; and
  • the fact that the will-maker formed an intention to end their life does not of itself establish a lack of testamentary capacity.

The Court also conceded that a person considering taking their own life is unlikely to bring to mind the formal requirements for the execution of a valid will (which is consistent with the informal nature of a suicide note).

The fact that the suicide note was situated prominently near where the will-maker committed suicide ‘clearly suggested’ to the Court that the will-maker considered it to be an important document.

The defendants also argued, again unsuccessfully, in favour of an ‘unfound will’ that they allegedly knew the deceased to have created prior to the suicide note (which was unable to be located). The Court dealt with this issue by concluding that:

  • it was not satisfied that an alternative will existed; and
  • the writing and placement of the suicide note supported the more reasonable hypothesis and was consistent with the deceased having destroyed that earlier document with the intention of revoking it.

This article was written by Simon Crawford, Partner, Angela Liaskos, Senior Associate and Isabelle McMahon, Law Graduate.

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