Due to more dynamic family structures and individuals increasingly owning more assets than ever before, it may not come as a surprise that inheritance disputes have been on the rise since 2015. Last year the Financial Times reported that contested Wills in the High Court had reached an all-time high in 2019, with an increase of 47 per cent on 2018. This blog looks at some common causes for inheritance disputes, what can be done to resolve them, and how to avoid them altogether.
Common causes for inheritance disputes
Being left out of a Will
Depending on their relation to the Deceased and personal circumstances, certain individuals are entitled to apply to the court to be included under the Inheritance Act 1975. Commonly, disputes under this cause tend to arise when adequate financial provisions have not been made for those who believe they should have inherited.
The family of the late Monty Python actor and comedian, Terry Jones, are currently involved in a Will dispute following his death. Under the act which allows family members to seek “reasonable provision”, Terry Jones’ children are suing their father’s second wife, Anna Söderström, who is thought to be the main beneficiary of the Will. Although details of Jones’ Will have not been released, this is a good example of how a dispute may arise if family members believe they are not receiving what they are rightfully entitled to, even if a valid Will is in place.
Other celebrities such as actor Daniel Craig and TV chef Gordon Ramsay have also made recent statements regarding their legacy, stating that they will not be leaving a substantial inheritance to their children when the time comes which may cause reason to contest the Will when they pass away.
When someone passes away without a Will, they are said to have died “intestate” and their estate must be distributed following the rules of intestacy. Sadly, many people are not aware of the importance of creating a Will to ensure their estate does not fall to these rules which may result in a distribution not following the Testator’s wishes. These estates may result in disputes between family members as people often assume that their closest loved ones will inherit even when they die without a Will, but this is not always the case.
Changes in family dynamics, including blended families and cohabiting couples, are a common cause of inheritance disputes. Unfortunately, the order of priority under the rules of intestacy in England, Wales and Scotland does not take into consideration stepchildren or cohabiting couples. Therefore, for an individual wanting their estate to be left to those loved ones, they will need to ensure a valid and up to date Will is in place.
Inheritance lending specialist, Tower Street Finance, recently conducted in-depth research amongst 2,000 UK adults either expected to be left an inheritance or a beneficiary of a Will. The research revealed people’s reluctance to discuss inheritance combined with minimal understanding of the associated legal complexities, some of the key findings are:
- 84% of UK adults plan to leave an inheritance, however, only 54% have a Will
- 32% of stepparents have a Will which does not treat their children and stepchildren equally
- 17% of stepparents plan to exclude their stepchildren from an inheritance
- 43% want to leave a legacy to their partner, although, few understand that without a Will those unmarried or not in a civil partnership would not be automatically entitled
Unfortunately, many are unaware of the legal distinction between biological children and stepchildren, and those stepparents who wish to leave their wealth to their stepchildren in addition to their biological children will need to clearly specify this in their Will to ensure they are included.
Homemade Wills may appear to be an attractive approach for someone to get their affairs in order due to the reasonable costs and ease of building. However, this approach has given rise to various problems for the families of a Testator when the time arrives which may result in disputes over complications such as Will validity.
Last year, research conducted by law firm Richard Nelson revealed that in the week leading up to the second national lockdown in 2020, Google searches for ‘make a free will online’ went up by over 600% and ‘free will template’ and ‘online will’ increased by almost 130%. There were also increases of over 100% for ‘will template’, ‘how to write a will’, and a frightening 1,500% increase in the search for ‘DIY Will’. These figures have sparked concern between legal professionals in the industry as the websites providing these services are often based on standard templates which should not be considered as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ for everyone. We are still some time away from seeing the full-blown effect this may have on future inheritance disputes.
How can inheritance disputes be resolved?
Mediation is a method that allows parties to have their voices heard to help resolve matters in a calm environment. It involves both parties coming together with a qualified, experienced mediator whose duty is to promote a resolution by actively suggesting ways in which the matter could be settled. This route can help save costly court battles as well as irreversible damage to the family unit, however, patience is key as depending on the complexity of the situation, mediation could take several sessions before the matter is resolved.
If mediation does not help reach an agreement, the dispute may need to be settled in court. Upon hearing the sides of all parties, the judge will ultimately decide on the case. The losing party typically pays the successful party’s legal costs; therefore, it can be an expensive route. If seeking expert legal advice regarding contentious probate cases, it is best to do this early as possible due to the complexities involved and likely delay in the estate administration process.
How to avoid inheritance disputes?Discuss your Will in advance
For many, discussions about death are difficult conversations to have, and for those who do manage to have the conversation, it can be an uncomfortable subject to talk about. Whilst there are no legal obligations to discuss your Will and its contents in advance, by doing so, it can help eliminate the element of surprise with loved ones and allows you to justify your decisions with them personally.
Generally, a Will should be updated every five years to ensure your affairs are up to date in the event of your death. However, there are various life events that should trigger a reminder to update a Will, including marriage/civil partnership, new additions to the family and buying a property. Although previous Wills will be revoked by the up to date version, old Wills should be destroyed to avoid any uncertainty or confusion.
A critical component of preparing or updating a Will is ensuring that there is no undue influence by anyone else. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a temporary amendment to the Wills Act 1837 has been made to allow Wills to be witnessed via video until 31 January 2022. When done on camera, it is difficult to see who is truly present and if there is any intimidating behaviour towards the Testator. This uncertainty may give rise to a claim that undue influence took place and that the Will is invalid, therefore, this option should be considered as a last resort if witnesses cannot be physically present.
Kings Court Trust is an award-winning probate and estate administration provider who can take care of the practicalities after someone passes away. Inheritance disputes often cause complications and delays to the estate administration process which is why it is important to ensure you take these steps outlined. In the event that you are presented with a contentious estate, we have the experience and partnerships in place to help resolve inheritance disputes and once resolved, can administer the estate quickly and efficiently.