Disputes over inheritance have soared in recent years, with the number of cases reaching the England and Wales High Court increasing dramatically during the last decade. According to Direct Line Life Insurance, 12.6 million British adults would be prepared to dispute a Will and go to court if they disagreed with the division of their relative’s estate.
Disputes can arise when a person is questioning the validity of a Will, pursuing a claim where they are not due to inherit, or disputing the amount of inheritance they are set to receive. Disputes can also arise when no Will has been left and those closest to the deceased are not necessarily those entitled under the rules of intestacy.
Why are inheritance disputes on the rise?
The rise in disputes reflects a few shifts seen in our society.
First, there are evolving family structures that make inheritance less straightforward, especially where there is no Will. Today, there are higher rates of cohabiting couples, increasing divorce rates and more blended families, which results in ever-increasing complexities to relationship dynamics.
Additionally, inflated property prices and rising levels of wealth make Wills more appealing to contest as they can result in a quick and significant increase to one’s net worth.
Legally, a Will can be disputed if a family member believes one of the following have occurred:
- The deceased did not have full mental capacity
- They were not aware of the content of the Will
- They were coerced
- The Will was not executed (signed and witnessed) properly
Are disputes about love or money ~ or both?
Here’s an example:
In 2016, Shirley Guymer passed away at the age of 78 after a battle with terminal cancer.
Just after her husband passed away in 2014, she wrote a Will, designating 95% of her estate to her 11 nieces and nephews because she had no children.
After Mrs Guymer’s death, the court learned that her Will was updated two months before she passed away in order to leave the majority of her estate to her brother, Terry Crook, and his two sons. This change in the Will resulted in Mr. Crook inheriting half of Mrs Guymer’s property in Hampshire and his sons receiving a quarter share each, giving them over £100,000.
The remainder of Mrs Guymer’s estate had an approximate value of £180,000 and was to be divided among her nine younger family members.
The new Will is currently being contested by Diane Stoner, Mrs Guymer’s sister, and Karen Reeve, Mrs Guymer’s niece. They claim that Mr Crook forced his sister to change her Will as Mrs Guymer had allegedly said “Terry is not having my land” several times.
As of 13th February 2020, the court battle is continuing between the family members on the validity of Mrs Guymer’s updated Will.
How to try and protect estates from inheritance disputes
Firstly, it is important to have a valid Will which clearly outlines an individual’s wishes. If someone dies without a Will, the estate would be distributed following the rules of intestacy and those closest to the deceased may not inherit.
Secondly, there are precautions that can be taken to reduce the risks of disputes. Discussing the Will’s contents and being transparent with a trusted Will writer can help relatives understand the wishes contained in the Will. The Will writer will usually create a file note recording the testator’s wishes and the file note will record why the testator made the Will in the format instructed. It is also usually a good idea for the testator to record the reasoning behind the distribution of the Will in a “letter to executors”. The original should be filed with but not attached to the original final Will. Such a letter is not legally binding but can be useful if matters are disputed.
Whatever your circumstances it is best to get professional advice. If you would like to meet one of our Consultants and discuss any of the issues raised in this article or any other Estate Planning topic, please telephone 01732 868190 or click here.