With individuals owning more assets and family structures constantly changing, inheritance disputes are becoming more common and complex. If a dispute does occur following the passing of a loved one, determining exactly who inherits what can be a challenge.
In this article, we'll be taking a look at some of the most common causes of inheritance disputes, as well as providing examples of some of the ways in which they can be effectively resolved. Let's get started.
What Causes an Inheritance Dispute?
Although the circumstances differ greatly depending on specific family structures and the assets in question, several common causes of inheritance disputes include:
Being Left Out of a Will
Under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, certain individuals are entitled to apply to court to be included in a deceased relative’s Will depending on their circumstances and relationship with the relative. Typically, these situations arise when adequate financial provisions have not been made for people they should have been made for; for example a dependent individual.
According to a recent report, inheritance disputes of this sort are set to become increasingly common, with findings revealing millions of Britons are likely to contest a loved one’s Will if they are unhappy with how assets are divided.
Recent high-profile cases add some weight to this argument. For example, the 2015 Court of Appeal ruling of the Ilott v Mitson case has encouraged many adult children who had been left out of their parents’ Wills to contest their inheritance.
‘Dying intestate' is the legal term for dying without a Will. When an individual passes away without making a valid Will, their estate will be administered through the ‘rules of intestacy’. Put simply, these rules provide a standard set of guidelines for those who will inherit a deceased person’s estate solely on relation and regardless of the actual nature of their relationship.
For example, if a surviving unmarried partner passes away and has two children, the estate will be split equally between them. The rules will not take into consideration whether one of the children had been estranged for 30 years, having no real relationship with the parent, while the other child was by their side up until their death.
In these circumstances, it's easy to see how a dispute may arise between children who will both be considered equal Beneficiaries. As such, ensuring you have a Will in place is often the most effective way of preventing an inheritance dispute from arising.
Changes in family dynamics are another common cause of inheritance disputes, particularly with the increase in blended families and cohabiting. The guidelines provided by the rules of intestacy are very black and white; any grey area in terms of stepchildren or cohabiting couples are not considered. An individual whose family includes a cohabiting partner or stepchildren would need to have a Will in place to adequately provide for their family the way they would like to. It’s easy to see how an inheritance dispute could arise if the rules of intestacy are followed or if the deceased did not update their Will in accordance with changes in their family dynamic.
A recent high-profile case highlighted what may happen to joint property in blended family situations. The decision was dependent on the sequence of death of a married couple who both had children outside of their marriage. The estate of the partner who died first would have passed to the surviving spouse, and consequently her children when she passed.
Evidence to prove the sequence in which the couple died was inconclusive, meaning the Law of Property Act 1925 (i.e. commorientes rule) was applied, assuming the older of the two died first. The case ended in an expensive court battle between two stepsisters and saw the surviving spouse, and the respective blood children, inherit any jointly-owned property. This is another important aspect that couples should think about when planning their estate.
How to Resolve an Inheritance Dispute
Having an up-to-date, valid Will in place that has been drafted by a specialist solicitor is one of the most effective ways of avoiding an inheritance dispute. However, should one arise, there are further steps that can be taken to help resolve it:
Many family inheritance disputes can be resolved through mediation, which sees both sides meet with their lawyers and attempt to negotiate an agreement they’re both happy with. This route can help save costly court battles as well as irreversible damage to the family unit.
If an agreement cannot be reached through mediation, the dispute will need to be settled in front of a judge in court. Upon hearing all sides of the argument, the judge will come to a decision on the matter. It’s important to remember how costly this route can be, and it’s typically the losing party who pays the successful party’s legal costs.
Seeking Expert Legal Advice
Enlisting the help of an expert contentious probate solicitor can be instrumental in settling family disputes over inheritance. Given the complexities involved with these disputes, it’s best to do this as early as possible regardless of whether you’re making the claim or defending against one.
How We Can Help
If you’re in need of legal advice with regard to an inheritance dispute, or if you believe you have reason to dispute any aspect of an inheritance, our expert Contentious Probate team can help. Contact us via telephone on 0330 123 1229, send us an email via firstname.lastname@example.org or complete our contact form.
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