Probate problems – When families go to war over a will dispute

We all know that dying without leaving a will can cause enormous problems for those left behind. But even if you do take the time to complete a will, get it notarised and think that everything’s signed, sealed and delivered, the disputes can still rage on after you’ve gone.

In January 2022, IBB Law asked a thousand people about their experiences of contested wills, probate issues, or inheritance disputes. It appears that contentious probate solicitors have been busy, with three out of four of those asked experiencing some problems. Unsurprisingly, family tussles were the most common, with disputes between siblings topping the chart.

They also found that disputes concerning a male family member (usually the father) were more common than disputes over wills left by female family members. A quarter of those asked disputed a will because they felt that the individual had been coerced into amending or changing a will in favour of another party.

But how to prove it?

This is where things get complicated. The issue is that unless there’s been an unambiguous and obvious indication of coercive behaviour, it’s a tricky thing to prove. Hearsay and anecdotal evidence is not evidence at all and will be dismissed by the courts.

The IBB Law survey also indicated that men were more likely to benefit from a will and more likely to inherit a greater amount. This in itself has been the cause of many a contested will – where a beneficiary is expected to inherit more than they actually do when the will is read.

Interestingly, only 7% of mothers’ wills were disputed. But the figures certainly suggest that keeping things in the family can lead to conflict when it comes to dividing up the estate of a loved one.

Why are people disputing wills?

The survey showed that disputes over wills and probate were split pretty evenly between four categories. A quarter said it was because the claimant was not happy with the amount they’d received. Another quarter claimed that the estate wasn’t being distributed fairly, while another 25% of those asked said it was because the deceased was unable to comprehend what they were doing (basically challenging the ‘of sound mind’ clause that we’re all so familiar with from the movies). The last 25% who expressed unhappiness at the process were those who felt the deceased had been coerced into changing their will.

All of these reasons technically tick all the right boxes for contesting a will, namely:

  • A lack of mental capacity
  • Not understanding the terms of the will process
  • A will that has not been adequately dealt with by the executor
  • Undue influence
  • Fraud

However, proving any of these – apart from fraud, which is a police matter – is difficult to substantiate in court.

The timeline for contesting a will

It depends on why you want to contest the will. If it’s a claim for ‘reasonable financial provision’ (for example, if a spouse feels inadequate provision has been made for themselves or their children), you have six months from probate being issued. If, however, you want to challenge the validity of a will, then time is on your side. The trouble is, the longer it drags on, the less of the estate is left to divide up after court costs and solicitors’ fees.

Financially, contesting a will isn’t cheap. While some contentious probate solicitors will offer a no-win-no-fee policy, probate issues can drag on for years, draining bank accounts until there’s nothing left to contest. However, the legal fees aren’t always taken out of the estate, and what is more likely is that the losing side will pay for the plaintiff’s fees. You’ll find that executors typically take a neutral position on contentions to avoid getting dragged into the financial aspect of paying for the dispute.

Using experienced will dispute solicitors

To ensure that everything goes as smoothly as possible, hiring the services of experienced probate lawyers, especially if there are contentious probate claims, is essential. Choose a reputable firm of solicitors such as OGR Stock Denton Solicitors. If you’re contesting a will or are subject to an inheritance dispute, you need to talk to a legal advisor sooner rather than later.

Our family law and probate solicitors are here to help with impartial, practical advice. If you would like some advice or want to know more about the professional services we offer, feel free to email or call our helpdesk on 020 8349 0321.

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