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 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:
• 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.
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. 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 them. 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. 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. A disappointed beneficiary might want to consider issuing a claim to try to enforce a promise that was made to them by the deceased. 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.
Lorna Trueman, Partner