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personal finance

Inheritance disputes on the rise after landmark case

What does the chart show?
More people are contesting inheritance, with the number of cases in 2016 and 2017 topping those in each of the previous four years.

The number of disputes between family members over assets fell slightly in 2017 to 145 from 158 the previous year, according to law firm Wilsons. The surge in 2016 followed a high-profile case which gave encouragement to individuals to take their grievances to court.

The number of disputes for 2017 remained relatively high, however. These cases were brought under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 in the Royal Courts of Justice.

What was the case that triggered the rise in 2016?
In July 2015, the Court of Appeal (Ilott v Mitson) awarded an estranged daughter £143,000 after her mother left £486,000 to various animal charities. The ruling highlighted that even when adult children have been deliberately disinherited, it is still possible for them to challenge the will of the deceased.

This case encouraged many adult children, who had been left out of a will or not provided for to any great extent, to dispute their deceased parent’s decision, pushing up the annual figures.

Ilott v Mitson was not the only cause of the medium-term increase in inheritance disputes. Traditional family structures have become less common in recent years, with a sharp rise in remarriages: many stepchildren now expect to be included in wills, and sometimes bring claims against other beneficiaries if they are disappointed with their inheritance.

Claims can be expensive and an estate needs to be of sufficient value to be worth contesting. However, the rise of property values in many parts of the UK over the past decade means a growing proportion of estates are now seen as worth fighting over.

Who can make a claim?
Claims under the Inheritance Act can now be made by a range of non-traditional family members. For example, cohabitees, same-sex partners and people who were treated by the deceased as a child of the family, such as the child of a long-term partner, can now make a claim in the courts for inheritance.

In claims of this nature, the court will make a decision based on the financial needs of the claimant, while taking into account other factors such as the size of the estate and the financial needs of any other beneficiaries. Most disputes over the distribution of a family member’s assets are made by disappointed members of the same family. While it is relatively unusual for a parent to disinherit a child completely, it is common for people to tailor their wills to favour one child over another.

Are there any other factors at play here?
Life expectancy is now considerably longer, so many parents now pass on their wealth when their children have already built up their own assets. As a result, some parents may choose to leave a much larger inheritance to those in need elsewhere, such as charities.

Alice Vale, a solicitor at Wilsons, a law firm, said: “Society has evolved rapidly since the Inheritance Act was introduced in 1975, and now a wider variety of people are able to ‘try their hand’ at claiming an inheritance. As the range of potential claimants has expanded and family arrangements have become more complex, so the scope for disputes to crop up between rival heirs has increased. This is a trend that looks likely to continue.”

How can you minimise the risk of disputes?
Experts recommend being transparent in your wishes. Many disputes arise because a testator has told different people what he or she thinks they want to hear and the result can be that beneficiaries all truthfully claim they were told different things. This can make the outcome of a court case all the more uncertain.

As well as explaining the will to the people affected, experts advise putting the reasons for their decisions in writing and ask for a copy to be kept with the will. This is often done in a letter of wishes. It is not legally binding, but can be useful if matters are disputed.


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