Will disputes are on the rise
Emma Ironside discusses what has caused this shift and why we are more ready to challenge Wills than ever before.
Most people prepare a Will to ensure that their family is taken care of when they die. Not many imagine years of legal battles while their loved ones argue over their estate. However according to statistics, the number of probate claims is increasing every year and arguments about Wills are becoming more and more common. The Ministry of Justice has reported a steady increase in the number of claims since 2017, not including the challenges that do not make it to court. This means that it is likely that the court figures are just the tip of the iceberg and the real number of Will challenges remains unknown.
Why has there been rise in the number of Will disputes?
Changes in family structures
The most obvious reason for the increase in claims is the change in family structures. Multi-family households are now very common with more cohabiting couples and second marriages creating diverse family set ups. Sadly, these situations can lead to confusion upon death, where step-parents inherit instead of children or children inherit instead of a long-standing partner.
Blended families usually mean that there are more people involved in family life, which naturally results in more people being able to bring a claim on death. The complex dynamics of these relationships can create the perfect storm for disputes when someone dies. The change in family set ups can also mean that adult children are living with parents for longer and may be more financially dependent on them as a result.
A rise in property prices
The increased cost of living and property prices often means that children are reliant on their parents for housing deposits or mortgage guarantees. As this becomes more common, family members are more reliant on the deceased when it comes to distributing the estate.
Rapidly rising property prices also means that estates, overall, are getting bigger. With average property prices in the UK currently around £300,000, most property owners have a substantial asset in their estate. The increase in value in estates means that more people are willing to bring a claim as there is more to be argued over.
The awareness of such claims through high profile cases like Ilott v Mitson also means that more people know about Will disputes than ever before. This case was reported in the mainstream media as the story of an adult child succeeding to overturn her mother’s Will. Although this was not the full story and Ms Ilott received very little from her mother’s estate, this inevitably led to more adult children seeking to challenge their parents’ Wills.
Historically, people assumed that if a Will was in place and you were left out of it then that was the end of the matter. But as more and more disappointed beneficiaries become aware of their ability to bring a claim, they are more likely to take some legal advice if they find themselves in the unexpected position of being left out of a Will. This has also been helped by the cultural shift in people becoming more litigious in general and the ready availability of legal advice.
Alternative dispute resolution make the process more accessible
Running alongside the increase in claims has been the increase in alternative dispute resolution and mediation in all litigated claims. There is so much pressure on parties to settle any claim before trial that some people think it is worth bringing a claim in the hope that they will be able to settle for something. This fall-back option makes people far more willing to litigate in the hope that their claim would never make it before a judge.
As people live longer and families become more varied it is likely that this area of law will continue to grow. During the lockdowns practitioners saw an increase in Wills being made, confusion over how they could be properly witnessed while socially distancing and whether, and how, Wills can be executed remotely. This is likely to give rise to a whole host of new Will disputes in the future.
Specialist probate solicitors
Clarke Willmott has a specialist team of contested probate solicitors who can advise you on all types of Will disputes. We have extensive experience in acting for executors, trustees, beneficiaries and parties bringing or defending claims against an estate.