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4th March 2024

Lara Barton examines the rise in Will disputes in Today’s Wills and Probate

Lara Barton examines the rise in Will disputes in Today’s Wills and Probate

Lara’s article was published in Today’s Wills and Probate, 4 March 2024, and can be seen here.

Inheritance disputes in England and Wales are on the rise

Figures recently released by the Ministry of Justice reveal that court cases relating to disputed Wills have increased by over 34% since 2017, and by more than 140% in the past decade.

This dispiriting trend is happening for a number of reasons, including that property prices have increased exponentially over the periods in question, as well as the fact that the significant increase in people falling within the Inheritance Tax (IHT) net is creating greater pressure on lifetime gifting. Fractured families, technological advances, and the use of internet banking all contribute to this issue. At the same time, we are frequently seeing a marked wealth gap between generations, and people are living longer due to improvements in medicine, healthcare and nutrition.

Another factor behind the sharp rise in disputed Wills relates to the consequential surge in dementia and other age-related disorders linked to the ageing population. This has resulted in older vulnerable people increasingly being taken advantage of by those seeking to exploit their weaknesses and take control of their finances for personal benefit – whether they be family members, loved ones, carers, and other connected parties. Financial abuse is not only stealing someone’s assets and can include defrauding or misleading someone into gifting assets and taking advantage of their misunderstanding or good nature in order to do so.

Against this background and reality, it is clear that many younger people are now facing a far tougher financial environment than their parents or grandparents, due to a range of factors including job market pressures, inflation, property prices and the recently increased cost of borrowing. As such, there are additional incentives for family members and beneficiaries of Wills to attempt to wrestle as much monetary value as possible from loved ones’ estates, whether by fair or unscrupulous methods, including the disputing of Wills via the courts. In many cases, entrenched mistrust between parties leads to lengthy court battles, even in the absence of underlying allegations of illicit behaviour, meaning that even more estates’ financial distributions are being challenged in the court system.

There is a further impact due to court delays and legal costs, with current conditions meaning it is likely to take two or more years for a case to get to trial. Thus, the legal cost implications of taking such disputes to court are significant, as is the emotional toll wrought on those involved.

As such, it is more important than ever that people should take preventative action by way of planning and safeguarding well in advance, in order to minimise the risk of such disputes arising and to prevent the fallout that ensues as a result of such disagreements. Wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney should be put in place, and reviewed at regular intervals. By planning ahead while mental capacity is not in question, or at least is less likely to be challenged, the likelihood of disputes occurring over assets and Wills is significantly reduced.

People should be firmly encouraged to take legal advice when putting in place Wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney, in order to minimise the chances of disputes arising in later life and upon their death and the distribution of their estates. Similarly, individuals should clearly and unequivocally communicate their wishes to their families in relation to their estates, and should ensure that their instructions are clearly documented.