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Common Causes for Inheritance Disputes

The two most common reasons people contest an inheritance include situations where people who were financially dependent on the deceased feel they were not sufficiently provided for in the Will, and a question around the deceased’s mental capacity when the Will was signed. It is also becoming more common in cases where second marriages and blended families are concerned. However, the courts are beginning to push back on frivolous claims and uncooperative family members.

In the past inheritance claims seemed to be something only for the rich and famous, but recent research carried out by Direct Line Group revealed that ¼ of the people surveyed would be willing to challenge a Will if they felt they had been treated unfairly by family members and/or loved ones. So, what we are seeing is a significant increase in inheritance disputes going to court. It should be noted that many of these cases fail for lacking a valid basis on which to make a claim. But as multiple marriages in a lifetime and blended families are a societal norm, and the fact that people are in general becoming more aware of inheritance issues, it is anticipated that such claims will continue to rise unless there is a shift in attitude toward Will drafting.

There is a common misconception that parents must provide for their children after they pass away. But in fact, English law allows for testamentary freedom. In other words, individuals can leave their assets to whomever they please.

To bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, a spouse, child, cohabitee or other dependant must show that they have not been sufficiently provided for under the deceased’s Will. As previously mentioned, the courts are starting to push back on frivolous claims, or where they consider the parties have not made reasonable attempts to settle out of court. Two recent cases that illustrate the challenges involved will be examined below.

Rochford v Rochford: involved a daughter with long-term health complications, who was left a small legacy in her father’s Will and her aunt (the deceased’s sister) who stood to inherit the majority of the estate. When the father had his Will drawn up he and his daughter had fallen out (which is why he left her only a small amount); however, they had reconciled before he passed away. Unfortunately, he did not update his Will before he passed away, so the daughter claimed additional financial provision after he passed away. This was contested by the aunt, who obviously wanted to keep the larger sum she would have inherited. Despite the fact that the estate was relatively small, and the daughter had suggested they use mediation to resolve their dispute, the aunt refused which led to a costly (and time consuming) court case. Recognising the daughter’s plight, and criticising the aunt for her actions, the court awarded the daughter additional funds as well as interest and costs.

Shapton v Seviour: concerned a healthy, home-owning daughter with a good income and a terminally ill second wife. The father left the whole of his estate to his wife as she was terminally ill, unable to work and reliant on state benefits. The daughter, however, felt she was entitled to receive a share of her father’s modest estate. In rejecting the daughter’s claim, the court held that it was evident she was not in need of financial assistance and that her father’s wishes were very clear: he wanted everything to go to his wife to support her needs. Ultimately, the court also ordered the daughter to pay the wife’s costs in defending the claim.

Often disputes arise as a result of lack of communication among families, where parents or partners do not discuss their plans or give explanations as to their decisions while they are still alive, which fuels grievances after they die. Moreover, people often do not seek professional assistance when drawing up their Wills, which can lead to poorly drafted Wills open to challenge.

Will writing is considered to be an unreserved legal activity, meaning unregulated providers can offer this service alongside solicitors. Although Will writing itself is unregulated, there are statutory requirements relating to drafting and signing that must be complied with for the Will to be valid. For instance, there is a requirement that Wills must be signed in the presence of two witnesses, who must also sign in the presence of the testator (the person making the Will). While the basic principles may seem simple, the complications of new partners and blended families are likely to need (and would benefit greatly from) specialist advice. There are also other day-to-day situations that create complexity, such as a child with health issues or where there is a business involved, which are not properly considered with “off-the-shelf” Will packages. More often than not, poorly drafted Wills cause more disputes within the family than having no Will at all.

Instructing a solicitor means you get the benefit of considered arrangements that will (hopefully) satisfy what may otherwise seem to be irreconcilable claims. Coupled with good communication among the family during your lifetime, later disputes will likely be avoided. If you would like assistance in drafting your Will to avoid the risk of it being challenged down the road or think you have been inadequately provided for in a loved one’s Will, contact Thompson Budd today.

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