Longevity, complicated family structures, the soaring value of estates and more charitable giving among the reasons for the increase

The number of High Court cases involving disputes over wills and inheritance rose by 175%, from 83 in 2006 to 228 in 2007, says Wedlake Bell, the City law firm.

Wedlake Bell’s research, which is based on the latest figures from the High Court Chancery Division, shows that wills disputes (contentious probate actions) rose by 153%, from 73 in 2006 to 185 in 2007, and inheritance disputes rose by 330%, from 10 in 2006 to 43 in 2007. (These figures relate to proceedings actually heard by the High Court.)

Wedlake Bell explains that the actual number of legal disputes over wills is likely to be far higher as only a fraction of cases end up in the courts with most settled out of court. 

Wedlake Bell says that the increase in the number of disputes over wills is being driven by the increasing complexity of family structures, by the increasing value of estates in dispute and in part by increasing longevity.

Wedlake Bell explains that as the nuclear family disintegrates and very complicated relationships ensue, disagreements arise on who should receive how much of an estate.

Says Fay Copeland: “We are seeing more and more cases where disputes arise from spouses from first, second or even third marriages. Things get even more complicated when it comes to provisions for the children of each marriage. People can end up very displeased with the size of the slice of the estate they receive and have fewer qualms about taking take matters to court if they feel they have been treated unfairly under the Will.”

Adds Fay Copeland: “Long-term cohabitation, a bigger trend now than ever before, also creates many wills disputes. The family of a deceased may object to wills provisions for a cohabitating partner if the couple was never officially married. Likewise, a cohabitating partner might contest a will that does not include provisions for them. Even a noncohabitating partner may be able to contest a will if he/she was being maintained by the deceased before death.”

Other cases include those where illegitimate or step- children are involved. If a man helps raise an illegitimate child or a step-child with regular maintenance payments, there could be grounds for contesting a will that does not provide for the child after the man’s death.

Says Fay Copeland: “Anyone who intends to leave a will should be aware that wills are not set in stone. If a need for ongoing maintenance payments exists the will can sometimes be challenged.”

Wedlake Bell says that the increase in wills disputes is also due to a higher number of people challenging wills on the grounds of mental incapacity of the will-maker – partly as people now live long into their old age when their mental state may start to deteriorate. People left out of wills may think that the deceased was no longer of sound mind at the time of drafting their will or may have been vulnerable to pressure to favour one beneficiary over another and so the will should be set-aside.

Wedlake Bell adds that another reason for the rise in wills disputes is that people have started leaving vast amounts of money to charitable institutions.

Explains Fay Copeland: “Many older people feel disconnected to their children nowadays, as families are increasingly dispersed across the UK and worldwide, and in many cases have no communication at all. We have seen an increase in the number of people who decide to leave their sizeable estates to charitable institutions, as they feel closer to these than to their own children. These can range from the legendary local cat shelter through to medical research charities. Disgruntled children then challenge their parents’ wills, often on the grounds of mental incapacity.”

Fay Copeland also adds that in some cases, parents who have paid for a good education for their children or helped them buy their first home feel they have done enough for their children and want to see them stand on their own two feet. In these cases it can be harder to successfully challenge a Will leaving sizeable charitable legacies, but some children will still try.

Better to get it right the first time around

Fay Copeland advises that people really should try to get their wills right in the first place.

Says Fay Copeland: “If an individual wants to leave a significant portion of their estate to a charity, or leave someone out of a will, it is a good idea to leave a supporting letter that explains that this is what they intend to do and why. This kind of additional supporting documentation can help if a will is disputed. It can also help a beneficiary who is being left out of a will to understand that is not a reflection of their parents’ feelings for them.”

“With more money being at stake nowadays there is obviously a bigger enticement to litigate. Anyone leaving a will should be aware that litigation after their death will only reduce the amount of money that does eventually go to the charity or whomever they want to leave it to, as the legal costs may be withdrawn from the contested estate. So better get it right the first time around.”

Fay Copeland explains also that DIY wills are becoming more popular primarily because they are cheaper and that means that individuals are amore likely to leave behind a poorly drafted and even contradictory will. In the long-term, this can turn out to be a false economy.