Inheritance disputes are rising, say law firms

Solicitors have reported a sharp increase in enquiries relating to inheritance disputes and the contesting of Wills. The law firm JMW Solicitors said that compared with the previous six months enquiries had risen by 111% between October 2020 and April 2021. But although an increase in unexpected deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly contributed to intestacy rates, experts say that inheritance disputes were already on the rise in England and Wales.

Figures show that one in four adults would now contest a Will if they didn’t feel it was correctly distributed, and one trust, estate and inheritance disputes partner at Withers, Paul Hewitt, recently commented, “there’s been a definite and significant increase in Wills disputes. When I started out 22 years ago, only a handful of people specialised in this area but now there is an association of contentious probate lawyers with several hundred members”.

So why the increase in disputes if they can’t just be attributed to excess deaths and higher intestacy rates during the pandemic? Factors such as blended families, an ageing population and the prevalence of high-value properties in people’s estates have added to the complexities of estate planning.

Andrew Bartle, founder and managing director of inheritance specialist Tower Street Finance commented: gone are the days of the nuclear family being the norm. Today the blended family is the fastest growing type of household, recording an increase of three quarters over the last two decades according to the Office of National Statistics”.

 Stepparents who fail to make a Will, just like 45 per cent of the population, or who are not explicit in their desire for stepchildren to be included could inadvertently be leaving them out too as only a spouse, blood relative or adopted child can inherit automatically under the rules of intestacy”, he added.

Common misconceptions held by the general population of adults in England and Wales around Wills and inheritance law is another factor adding to the rise in disputes. A recent survey by Co-op Legal Services revealed that most Brits are unsure about inheritance law and statistics show that half of UK adults are living without a will. Added to this, over 40% think that a spouse automatically inherits their husband or wife’s assets if they pass away, and 67% think that if a parent dies, any remaining children automatically inherit their assets.

Vulnerability and diminished mental capacity also play a part in will disputes. Some families, it is reported, have fallen victim to the rise of so-called “predatory marriages”. A rising number of inheritance hunters have been exploiting older and vulnerable people by effectively grooming and then marrying them, becoming beneficiaries and disinheriting family members in the process. In one case a 91-year old woman secretly married a man 20 years her junior, despite being diagnosed with dementia. Her daughter knew nothing about the marriage and consequently lost all of her inheritance because her mother’s will was revoked when she died.

Although the Law Commission, in a 2017 consultation paper, previously recognised that testators can be vulnerable due to age, illness or social isolation, and that more should be done to protect them from financial abuse, experts say this is just the tip of the iceberg.

For those choosing to contest a will the costs can be significant and can easily run into tens of thousands of pounds, even without a trial. But if cases do go to court, costs can rise above £100,000.

Disputes can cost around half of the estate even without a trial, says Alison Parry, partner and head of will and trust disputes at JMW: “say you have got an estate that’s worth £200,000. When you have got two or three people arguing over that pot of money and each person has their own lawyers, very quickly you could see half of that pot disappear in legal costs before you have got anything off the ground.”

Additionally, the type of dispute can also have a huge cost impact, says Martin Oliver, a partner at Wright Hassall who specialises in contentious probate: “whereas claiming lack of due execution could cost between £50,000 and £70,000, a case involving undue influence or testamentary capacity could cost as much as £150,000.’ That’s because it can be very difficult to find evidence for the claim you’re making. It can be difficult, for instance, to tell gentle encouragement from coercion”.

Although not always possible, the best approach is to take every precaution to avoid disputes arising. Most importantly this means having a valid will in the first place. If someone dies without a will, the estate is distributed following the rules of intestacy and those closest to the deceased may not necessarily inherit; often the cause of many disputes.

For more complex cases involving challenges brought under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975, precautions such as testators discussing the contents of the will and explaining how the estate will be distributed can prepare beneficiaries and remove potentially contentious surprises.

Finally, taking out Wills and probate insurance can help to protect appointed Will executors or administrators against unforeseen eventualities such as missing Wills being discovered or late beneficiaries coming forward. Insurance in such cases is often considered a solid option because while it also provides cover against costs such as payments to late beneficiaries, it will usually also cover any legal costs and expenses. LawSure offers a comprehensive suite of estates administration insurance products by acting as a competitive, independent broker across the legal insurance market. By using LawSure solicitors are not only providing the best market options for their clients, but also saving themselves the arduous job of contacting multiple suppliers to satisfy SRA requirements relating to client choice and the Insurance Distribution Directive.


DISCLAIMER:  Nothing said in this article constitutes legal or other professional advice and no warranty is given nor liability accepted for the contents of this article. LawSure Insurance will not accept responsibility for any loss suffered in consequence of reliance on information contained in the article.