Example of contesting a will – the case of Colleen McCullough
Colleen McCullough was a famous Australian author, known for her best-selling novel The Thorn Birds, which sold over 33 million copies worldwide.
At the time of her death in 2015, McCullough’s estate was estimated to be worth several million dollars.
The distribution of McCullough’s estate became a bitter legal dispute that was played out in the Supreme Court of NSW, garnering much attention from the Australian media.
Contesting a will was costly, and resulted in a bitter dispute between McCullough’s husband of thirty years, Ric Robinson and her executor, Selwa Anthony.
The case was made quite complicated since McCullough made several wills throughout her lifetime.
Two wills, made within 6 short months of each other, were at the centre of the dispute.
The first will, dubbed the ‘Oklahoma’ will, was made in July 2014 and named the University of Oklahoma Foundation as the sole beneficiary to McCullough’s multi-million dollar estate.
The second will, signed only a few short months later in October 2014, named her partner, Mr Robinson, as the sole beneficiary.
McCullough’s friend and executor, Ms Anthony, told the court that McCullough deliberately cut Robinson out of her will in 2014 after finding out Robinson had ‘taken a mistress’ and ‘spent all the money’.
The plaintiff’s lawyer, Kim Morrissey, also gave evidence to the court, recounting an episode on June 24, 2014, where the author called the police to her home and told officers that Mr Robinson and his mistress entered her bedroom and were aggressive towards her.
Ms Anthony accused Mr Robinson of taking advantage of McCullough’s ill health to make her re-write her will, with the case resting on whether Robinson used undue influence to coerce McCullough to change her will and name him as the sole beneficiary.
McCullough’s solicitor, Piria Coleman agreed with Ms Anthony that the ‘Oklahoma’ will was the genuine one.
In McCullough’s last few weeks of life, she was visited several times by a GP, Dr Robert Challender, who prepared a letter for Robinson, stating that while McCullough was in bad shape physically, her mental state was good and she was ‘completely able to make well-considered decisions’.
Robinson provided a copy of this letter to Coleman only two short weeks before McCullough’s death. Coleman stated that the document was prepared in a calculated attempt by Robinson to prove McCullough’s testamentary capacity, should anyone come to question the second will.
Despite finding that Robinson was not a ‘wholly reliable witness’, New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Neil Rein found that Ms Anthony had not sufficiently established that Mr Robinson coerced his wife into signing the documents.
Justice Rein’s judgement ultimately found that ‘Colleen McCullough intended to bequeath her entire estate to her husband,’ with the second will being found to be valid.
Each party was ordered to bear their own costs.