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Disputes over inheritance – ‘Modern life’ to blame?

A record number of inheritance disputes are reaching the High Court despite rising court costs and the risk involved with losing a case. The number of cases brought to the High Court under the Inheritance Act in 2005 was 15, compared to 116 cases in 2015. But this is only the tip of the iceberg when we consider the number of cases that would have been settled out of court or in County Court.

Disputes can arise when no Will has been left and those closest to the deceased are not necessarily those entitled under the rules of intestacy. For example, a care-giver or life-long friend would lose out under intestacy and the nearest, entitled, blood relative may be a distant cousin. Another, increasingly common cause for dispute is when a Will has become invalid due to a change in circumstances i.e. a divorce. This could result in parents or siblings of the deceased inheriting instead of the deceased’s partner.

In many cases, a Will has been left, but someone doesn’t agree with how the estate is to be distributed. In a recent case, three charities were due to receive a share of a £486,000 estate. Mrs Ilott, the estranged daughter of the deceased, made a claim against the estate and was awarded a settlement of £50,000. She appealed the decision and the settlement was increased to £160,000 by the Court of Appeal. The three charities took this to the Supreme Court who restored the original award. The judgement "added that significant weight should be given to the wishes set down in a person's will and that family relationships do not automatically override the needs of charities who would use the money to do good works."

It is estimated that around six million people cohabit in the UK, with this being the fastest growing type of family. Studies show that assumptions are made surrounding inheritance, such as the belief in ‘common law marriage’. Two thirds of adults have never made a Will, many of whom will be in ‘blended-families’ (where partners have children from previous relationships). It is not a surprise that a growing change in family structure correlates with the rise in inheritance disputes.

But what else could be contributing to this marked increase? Dan Winter, partner at Nockolds law firm, thinks that increasing house prices, and therefore the inheritance at stake, makes the risk of going to court worth the gamble.  Again, this trend sees no chance of abating. Jo Edwards is a partner at London law firm Forsters and former chair of family law organisation Resolution, an organisation which has campaigned for a number of years for legal rights for co-habitants. Edwards points out the high stakes involved in an inheritance dispute. Especially "at a time of already high emotion, so as an application must be brought within six months from the date on which representation - Grant of Probate or Grant of Letters of Administration - is taken out".

Kings Court Trust offers a full estate administration service whether an estate is testate or intestate. The service is provided by bereavement trained estate managers who provide support to families in all sorts of situations. For executors, administering an estate when families are in disagreement can be extremely stressful. By appointing Kings Court Trust as the professional executor, the estate can be administered with objectivity and compassion.

Speak to our Bereavement Team if you would like some advice. Telephone 03332 075 477 or email bereavementteam@kctrust.co.uk.