When someone passes away, their Will acts as a guide to how their assets will be distributed, and it is the responsibility of the executor to carry out these wishes. For the majority of cases, all goes to plan and the estate is settled as set out in the Will. However, when a family member feels left out, cheated or hard done by, legal disputes can ensue, and in recent years this has become an increasingly common situation.
A particularly high-profile example of a Will Dispute recently hit the headlines in the case of Heather Ilott, who challenged her late mother’s Will after being left nothing. Her mother, Melita Jackson, had instead chosen to bequeath the entirety of her £500,000 fortune to three animal charities. Feeling left out, and with five children of her own to provide for, Heather made a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 on the basis that her mother had not made "reasonable financial provision" for her.
The three charities came together to fight to keep the money, and after a long legal battle the Supreme Court - the highest in the country - granted their appeal. The landmark case goes to show the weight that the wishes set out in a person’s Will can carry when a judge is considering a dispute over inheritance.
When we make a Will, we assume that the instructions within are absolute, and legally indisputable – after all, isn’t that the purpose of a Will? But every year, hundreds of Wills are disputed for a whole host of different reasons. In fact, between 2008 and 2013 the number of Will Disputes coming through the courts rose by a whopping 700%.
So how can a Will be disputed?
There are several grounds upon which a Will can be contested:
- Lack of testamentary capacity – where the person making the Will might not have been of sound mind
- Lack of valid execution – when the correct process for creating a valid Will was not followed
- Lack of knowledge and approval
- Undue influence – when the person making the Will was unduly influenced, coerced or under duress
- Suspicion of a fraudulent or forged Will
- Rectification and construction claims – when the Will may have been negligently or unclearly drafted
As in the case of Heather Ilott, Wills can sometimes be contested under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975. The purpose of this Act is to assist family members who have not inherited for one of three reasons:
- Intestacy (where no Will was made and the estate is instead divided according to a strict set of rules)
- Being left out of the Will entirely
- Not being provided with enough
Why are Will Disputes on the rise?
Property prices have rocketed over the past couple of decades, and subsequently the value of assets passed on as inheritances are getting larger every year. Disputing a Will can be costly, but the higher the value of the assets at stake, the more financially viable it becomes to pursue a claim.
Research shows that people routinely overestimate the amount they expect to inherit and plan for the windfall as a bolster to their finances. When some people don’t inherit the amount they were expecting, they may feel cheated or treated unfairly, and consequently seek to make a claim.
Cultural change over the past few decades may also go some way to explain the increase in Will Disputes. In modern times it is much more common for people to have children from first and second marriages and so on, which can complicate matters of inheritance. When certain family members feel like they have been left out or not adequately provisioned for, emotions can run high and old family tensions can boil over, resulting in disputes.
What can you do to prevent your Will from being disputed in future?
The very best thing you can do to avoid disputes between your relatives in future is to ensure your Will is carefully drafted and legally watertight. This will give the greatest chance of your instructions being carried out as you wish. In order to be safe in the knowledge that everything is done correctly and there is no ambiguity in your Will’s instructions, it’s essential that you instruct a qualified and experienced solicitor to help you through the process.
When it comes to making your Will, it can be tempting to go for the cheaper options on the market, such as online services or DIY packs bought from the shops, but this can sometimes leave your Will open to disputes. You can read more about the dangers of DIY Wills in our previous blog post.
If you feel you have grounds to contest a Will, or are looking to defend a claim from someone contesting a Will, it’s imperative that you instruct a solicitor as early as possible to talk through your options.
Devonalds Solicitors’ Wills and Probate experts have been advising clients in South Wales on all matters regarding Wills, Probate and Inheritance for decades - we understand that no two situations are the same. For tailored advice and a friendly, professional service, get in touch with our team today.