Court quashes sale of dementia patient's home to younger man

The High Court has set aside a transaction in which an 85-year-old sold her house at a considerable undervalue to a man 45 years her junior. The judge held that she did not fully understand what she was doing when she agreed to the sale.

Ann Sybil Gurney formed a close relationship with William Paul Doherty in 2010 when he did some gardening and repairs to her property. He was 33 and she was 78.

In 2012, she sold her house to him for £70,000 and he executed a declaration of trust giving her a beneficial interest in the property for the rest of her life.

She died in 2017, primarily from pneumonia but dementia was ultimately a cause of her death. A family member, Mrs Dawn Moursi, claimed that Mr Doherty had unduly influenced Mrs Gurney to sell her house.

A joint expert report concluded that the house was worth £275,000 in 2012, and £191,500 based on the life interest granted by the trust. A medical expert considered that Mrs Gurney would have been already developing dementia at the time of the sale and had been vulnerable to undue influence based on several risk factors.

In assessing the case, the judge said that the sale of the house at a considerable undervalue called for an explanation. Although Mr Doherty denied there was any romantic aspect to their relationship, the evidence of Mrs Gurney’s gifts, phone calls and letters to him showed that she had envisaged a sexual relationship and marriage.

Those factors, combined with the sale of her house to him on such preferential terms, showed that the relationship was one in which she had placed trust and confidence in Mr Doherty, such that he had influence over her that was capable of abuse.

There was no evidence to rebut the presumption of undue influence.  The house sale could not stand in the light of expert evidence that Mrs Gurney’s judgement at the time of the transaction might have been impaired by reason of dementia and that she had been vulnerable to undue influence based on several risk factors.

Mr Doherty’s character and relationship history were also relevant. He had convictions for assault and fraud. Five years before beginning his relationship with Mrs Gurney, he had been involved with a 57-year-old suffering from early onset dementia, had purchased her home at an undervalue and had sold it for a substantial profit.

It was not apparent that Mrs Gurney was aware of that, or of the criminal history.

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