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The rise of will and estate disputes

The estates of the late George Michael, Nelson Mandela and Jimi Hendrix, to name a few, all hit the headlines because they were disputed.

George Michael allegedly did not make provision for his long-term partner in his will. There is speculation that his partner will issue a claim against George Michael’s estate in due course.

Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife, Winnie Mandela, did not feel that his will made adequate provision for her and made a claim for more.

Jimi Hendrix did not leave a will despite his extensive wealth, which ultimately led to a 13 year battle between his siblings over how his estate should be divided.

Inheritance related claims are on the rise. The Independent newspaper reported in 2013 that there had been a 700% increase in probate claims issued in the High Court over a five year period and in 2016 and 2017, issued probate claims increased further still.

The increase in inheritance disputes can be attributed to a number of factors including:

  • A decline of the nuclear family;
  • More complex family structures;
  • People are living longer and more people are suffering from dementia; and
  • People have a greater awareness of what they can dispute.

As can be seen from the examples of celebrity estates, a will can be contested (or a claim made against an estate) for a variety of reasons. The most common examples we come across are

  1. The deceased did not have the mental capacity to make the will
    Relatives will often question a deceased’s mental capacity if there is an unusual or out of character legacy left in the will. Likewise if the deceased was suffering from dementia or seemed to be suffering from dementia around the time the will was created.
  2. The will was not properly executed
    A valid will needs to be executed in a very particular way. If any of the formalities are not complied with, it might be deemed invalid
  3. Some fraud or forgery has occurred in relation to the will
    A signature may have been forged, the will may have been fraudulently altered or someone may have poisoned the deceased’s mind against a potential beneficiary so as to ensure the deceased did not make provision in their will for the potential beneficiary.
  4. The deceased was unduly influenced when they made the will
    A disappointed beneficiary may want to challenge a will if they believe that the person who made the will was unduly influenced, coerced or put under duress to make the will on the terms they did.
  5. The will was incorrect and does not reflect the instructions that were given to the deceased’s will writer
    It may be possible to have the will rectified in this instance, or if that is not possible, then there may be a claim for professional negligence against the lawyer.
  6. The deceased made a promise which a disappointed beneficiary relied on to their detriment
    A disappointed beneficiary might want to consider issuing a claim to try to enforce a promise that was made to them by the deceased.
  7. The deceased did not make adequate provision for a disappointed beneficiary in a will
    If a beneficiary has been excluded from a will, or they receive a gift that was not as expected they may be able to make a claim under the Inheritance Act for “reasonable financial provision”, to seek a share (or greater share) of a deceased’s estate. A court has very wide discretion in such claims and the orders it can make can be varied.

Challenging a will or the distribution of an estate is a complex area of law and there are strict timescales for bringing claims that need to be adhered to.

If you believe that you might have a claim, or would like some advice about probate disputes, please call Lorna Trueman on 01332 226 476.

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