According to new High Court statistics published in The Independent newspaper on 28 November, the number of people challenging wills through the courts has risen by 38 per cent over the past year – and by more than 100 per cent since 2006. However, as many legal claims are settled out of court, these statistics only reflect a small percentage of the total number of wills disputes that actually occur.
So, why are there so many disputes over wills?
Well, there are probably a number of reasons:
1. The recession. In a difficult economic climate, beneficiaries may be relying on an inheritance to ease financial pressures or even to clear their debts. If that inheritance proves to be less than they were expecting (or less than they believed was rightfully theirs), the disgruntled beneficiary may decide to take legal action to try and secure a bigger share of the deceased’s estate. The impact of the recession has also meant that many estates have significantly reduced in value - for example, due to falling house prices or diminishing share values - which can again leave beneficiaries receiving less than they expected. Disappointment can breed resentment and, in turn, one beneficiary can turn against another in order to receive a bigger ‘share of the pot’;
2. Family structures. Many 21st century families are complex (especially when compared to those of even twenty years ago.) In many cases, families have become much bigger due to multiple marriages, divorces, births inside or outside of wedlock – all of which increases the number of potential beneficiaries. Also, to add further complications, any person who was financially dependent on the deceased at the time of his/her death, whether it be a child born out of wedlock, a cohabitee, or a mistress, may have a valid claim to part of the estate. This can create huge resentment (and emotional hurt) amongst other family members, particularly if they weren’t even aware of a mistress or child’s existence, and there are numerous court cases to prove how far beneficiaries will go to defend (and claim) what they believe is rightly theirs;
3. Outdated laws. The inheritance and intestacy laws were created in the 1920s and 1970s, when family structures were very different. Although there have been some changes over the years, the intestacy laws date back to 1925 and reflect the social conditions and attitudes of a very different Britain. The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 has not been comprehensively reviewed since its enactment, although it now covers cohabitants, civil partners and same-sex cohabitants. There is no doubt that the law has fallen behind the times and doesn’t fully reflect the society it operates within, and consequently it has been responsible in part for the rise in claims. However this is now being addressed. Earlier in the year, the Law Commission published a consultation paper that reviewed the rules on intestacy and family provision claims on death, making provisional proposals for changes to the law that aim to reflect the reasonable expectations of those who have been bereaved. A report and draft bill are due to be published in 2011;
4. Do-it-yourself wills. The growing popularity of DIY wills has increased the risk of disputes. Individuals who do not seek professional advice when writing a will, or who use unregulated will-writing companies, run the risk of creating invalid wills (and dying intestate), or leaving their will open to a legal challenge; and
5. Dying intestate. According to a study by the National Centre for Social Research, which was conducted to provide the Law Commission with up-to-date information on public attitudes on inheritance laws, only one-third of people may have written a will. If someone dies without making a valid will, there is an order of entitlement under the intestacy rules, which dictates how a deceased’s property is distributed; however, if fair provision is deemed not to have been made, claims can be brought against the estate. A properly-drawn up, up-to-date will can help reduce any claims made against your estate.
Matthew Arnold & Baldwin LLP is experienced in all matters relating to the preparation of wills. We offer quality tax, trusts and inheritance advice to ensure that your personal affairs are arranged as efficiently as possible, and that your assets are passed on to your heirs in the way you want them to be, thereby reducing the possibility of any unwanted claims against your estate. If you would like to discuss writing a will, or have any queries regarding anything I’ve discussed, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org