There has been a noticeable increase in inheritance disputes in recent years. The rise of such claims is regularly linked to the increase in the value of capital assets, in particular the astronomical rise in property values in the last 20  years. However disputes following a death can arise for a number of reasons and in this article we have unpicked some of the most common situations in which such disputes occur.

Inheritance disputes amongst the family

The nuclear family of a married couple with children is no longer the norm in Britain and as a result there are often competing family interests that may not align with the final will of an individual. Children from different relationships, multiple marriages and informal living arrangements can all give rise to discrepancies in what beneficiaries feel they are “entitled” to with reference to the obligations of the deceased; and what the will (or intestacy) says they will or will not get.

Recent court cases have highlighted the risks of excluding family members from wills. Whilst there are no forced heirship rules England and Wales, making a personal choice to leave out family members can have costly consequences. If you decide to take this step, a properly drafted will is paramount, together with a detailed side letter explaining why you have divided your estate unequally or excluded those who may have an expectation of receiving funds from your estate.

We also highly recommend you discuss your wishes with your family members whilst you are alive, so there are no surprises when you depart – which those left behind will have to come to terms with, whilst also dealing with their grief on losing you. Managing expectations can save a lot of heartache.

Disputes regarding the validity of wills

An increasingly ageing population means more people are suffering from degenerative mental diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. It is therefore all too common for a new will to be made by someone who may not have the requisite mental capacity to do so. Add to this a breakdown in familial relationships and allegations of undue influence or simply bald-faced fraudulent behaviour and the result is a contentious tug-of-war regarding the intentions of the deceased will maker.  

If we can foresee there could be some dispute over the division of an estate, we always advise the will maker to obtain a formal capacity assessment, even if they feel fine, as this will assist in rebutting any allegations of incapacity later on.

Administering the estate

Choosing the right person to administer the estate is an important decision and concerns from beneficiaries as to the suitability of executors to administer the estate correctly are increasingly common. The executor or administrator of the estate should be trusted and able to gather in and administer the estate and provide a coherent and complete account to the beneficiaries for their inheritance.

In particularly complicated estates, the executors may find themselves liable to deal with matters that are out of their control, whether it be removing sitting tenants from estate properties, or dealing with company assets. Obtaining appropriate legal advice, or if necessary appointing a professional executor or independent administrator, may provide executors and beneficiaries the peace of mind that an impartial third party is dealing with the issues. If appropriate, Russell-Cooke Trust Company can act as an independent administrator.

All or any of these issues may be resolved by obtaining proper legal advice at as early a stage as possible. It may be impossible to fully avoid future litigation but taking the appropriate steps before you die may save your estate from being mired by costly litigation.

Anouksha Patel is a senior associate in the private client team and Tom Deely is a senior associate in our trust & estate disputes team.