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Inheritance disputes rise as families go to war over estates

Number of contested wills at an all-time high as rising house prices and complex family structures drive competing claims

Disputes over inheritance are rising as more people in England and Wales take legal action to try to claim a bigger share of estates.

The number of contested wills being heard at the High Court reached an all-time high in 2019, at 188 cases — an increase of 47 per cent on 2018, according to figures released by the Ministry of Justice.

Lawyers say the number of inheritance disputes to be heard in front of a judge are just the tip of the iceberg, as most disputes are settled or abandoned before the case gets to court.

The costs of bringing a claim can be expensive, but the relentless rise of house prices in many parts of the UK means that a growing proportion of estates are seen by potential claimants as worth contesting, say lawyers.

At the same time, increasingly complex family structures through cohabitation and multiple marriages are helping to drive the number of claims to an estate, which can often result in disputes.

Challenging an estate has become increasingly common, with higher estate values making it more worthwhile for spouses, partners, children and other potential claimants to seek a bigger slice of that pie.

More complex family structures, with unmarried partners, or second or third spouses with children from previous relationships, have the effect of creating a web of competing claims on a person’s estate.

Claimants have a greater chance of winning a bigger share of an estate if they were financially dependant on the deceased during their lifetime.

One factor driving the surge in cases is the fact that unmarried couples who live together are not automatically entitled to a share of the other’s estate unless the deceased has made a will in their favour, which can lead to them pursuing a claim in court in order to inherit from their deceased partner. More distant or estranged claimants will find it a lot harder to obtain a meaningful share of an estate.

The number of inheritance disputes is expected to increase as the economic effects of Covid-19 added to the financial pressures weighing on families.

Legal challenges can take many forms such as claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. The validity of the deceased’s last will can be disputed for a variety of reasons including lack of mental capacity when it was made, undue influence of a particular party or errors in the way the will was prepared or executed.

Another factor driving claims was families living farther apart from one other, which often results in a testator favouring non-family members, such as friends, carers, or charities in their wills.

People often believe that their relatives have benefited sufficiently during their lifetime and are successfully making their own way in life, or that others are more needy or deserving. All of these circumstances can create a risk of multiple claims from different aspects of a deceased’s life.

To minimise the risk of claims, Goddard Dunbar recommend that people take legal advice in relation to the preparation of their will. Homemade wills can often lead to mistakes being made.

Call us today for some friendly advice on 01782 284320