Minimising the Risks of Inheritance Feuds

Why do estates become contentious?

Guest Article – Martin Holdsworth, Jones Myers LLP

It is a simple fact that the number of probate claims continues to rise year on year. There are, in my experience four major reasons for this:

  • Too many people die either without a Will or an out of date Will. The Intestacy Rules then rarely allow for the distribution of an estate to provide for a family in the way which the deceased wanted. Without any kind of agreement between ALL the beneficiaries (assuming they are all over 18 years), an application to court is inevitable.
  • Many family units now include step-parents and step-children (the blended family unit). Extra care is needed when advising members of blended families as to the obligations that may exist across the whole family unit and perhaps most importantly how those obligations are met after the first parent’s death.
  • Individuals are now, on average, living longer. Figures from the Office of National Statistics demonstrate that life expectancy over the next 50 years will increase by an incredible 8 years; to 87 for men and 90 for women. With an aging population the incidence of dementia increases and with it allegations of failing capacity and Will challenges.
  • The final significant factor is the reality that, due mainly to house price increases, estates are now worth more than ever before. An inheritance or lack of one can make a huge difference to someone’s financial and emotional wellbeing and it is no surprise, that in a more litigious society, claims are investigated to challenge testamentary provision.

It follows, therefore, that when someone makes a Will, the person they use must give careful consideration to areas where claims are likely.

“With care and knowledge, it is possible to identify and minimise the risk of post-death litigation.” Martin Holdsworth – Jones Myers LLP

The best start point for this is undoubtedly to know your client and understand not just the extent of their personal wealth but also their family dynamics. From this the client must be made aware of the consequential obligations of their circumstances which arise in all manner of ways, some of which may not be obvious.

Whilst testamentary freedom exists, consideration must be given to anyone where the will maker has created a financial obligation. Some are obvious – a spouse, cohabitee or any children still in education for example. However, some are not. I have been involved with claims by ex-spouses, ex-cohabitees, tenants (living rent free in a property owned by the deceased), adult children, mistresses and other individuals who were maintained financially in some form. Seeing a client away from their spouse can make disclosure easier.

Before full advice can be given in regards to a Will it is crucial that proper instructions are taken and recorded. The instructions given must be comprehensive, the Will Adviser must be satisfied that the person has appropriate mental capacity and consideration must be given to the person’s various obligations.

There is little doubt that probate litigation will continue to increase but by ensuring your clients seek proper advice when doing a Will they will have awareness of where claims can lie and reduce their chances of such litigation.