Even before the pandemic hit, the number of people prepared to challenge the wills of family members – or even friends or other connections – was increasing. According to figures from the UK’s Ministry of Justice, the number of inheritance disputes that were heard by the High Court in 2020 was up 50% from 2018, with 192 cases brought by individuals who claimed they were entitled to a share of – or larger proportion of – an estate.

But while these numbers seem low, it’s worth bearing in mind that these are the cases that have been so contentious that they reach court. At the earlier stage of a caveat being submitted to the Probate Registries, which stops the execution of a will by blocking probate from being granted for six months, 2020 saw more than 10,000 such challenges filed.

But why are the numbers rising so quickly? The legal profession cites numerous reasons for the increase, which include the impact of COVID-19 not allowing some families the time to put their affairs in order. Other factors include the increasing complexity of modern families and rising asset and house prices. And only time will tell whether 2021 figures are higher still following the opportunity to use a more virtual approach to wills that was introduced in September 2020, which coincided with the growing popularity of cheap, online will-writing services.

Increased incentive

Although we are a nation that prefers to own our homes, this wasn’t always the case. It was only in the 1970s that the number of home owners overtook the number of renters – buying houses which are now beginning to be passed on to the next generation. In addition, more individuals started to invest in stocks and shares following the privatisation of state-owned industries in the 1980s, including major utilities such as British Gas.

In later years, defined contribution pensions became another pool of funds that could be subject to challenges during the dividing up of an individual’s estate – not least as they are not part of the estate for inheritance purposes and their gifting is usually through the original forms completed by the individual, rather than through their will.

Challenging times

In the past two years, the pandemic has introduced its own twist to the complexity of modern families. But even before March 2020, the numbers of contested wills were climbing as more and more people lived with unmarried partners on death, or there was the presence of second or third spouses (and children from these previous relationships), all of which created more chances for contention.

Then, as the pandemic hit, some children chose to isolate with their vulnerable parents and (technically) became dependents once more, even leaving a marital home or jobs in order to do so. Other children, meanwhile, decided to distanced themselves for multiple months to protect their loved ones. This led to scenarios where some individuals felt they had more of a claim on an estate than before.

On top of that, experts also believe there were more people dying unexpectedly due to COVID-19 and, therefore, had not updated their wills.

Before the introduction of the ability to write wills virtually, many chose to access DIY will-writing services online, which are prone to errors, potentially resulting in a partial intestacy. Yes, they are cheap, but the consequences in the long run can end up being very costly.

A recent report by ResearchandMarkets.com highlights some of the issues, having researched 3,000 people and 26 online will providers. They noted that 23% of the consumers had not even bothered to read or try to understand the terms of the will they were entering into and signing. More concerning was the number of individuals who believe their affairs are simple (65%), but who actually had complex circumstances.

So what can you do to prevent future disputes?

We believe communication is key. As such, being open and clear with loved ones about your wishes for your estate, as early as possible, is one of the best ways to protect your will from being contested after your death.

While it can be an uncomfortable subject to broach, there is plenty of support available. We can help facilitate these conversations to ensure that your family is well informed, that you have the opportunity to discuss your wishes ahead of time and that everyone has the chance to understand the reasons behind your choices.

In addition, we can also help you understand what wealth you are likely to pass on and work with your legal advisers to help minimise uncertainty, confusion and stress for your loved ones when you’re no longer around. These same lawyers would also draw up your will more formally than any online services would, ensuring it is completely tailored to your own circumstances.

This not only allows for your estate to eventually be gifted as per your wishes in the event of your death – particularly if you have a large estate, a more convoluted family structure or complex wishes – but it will also help avoid previous tensions between family members escalating, as well as prevent pernicious family members seeking to overturn your will.

Although undue influence is one of the most common grounds for contesting a will, the reality is that a lack of knowledge and approval of the content, for example due to visual impairment, is actually the most common reason for a will being successfully challenged.

So get in touch and let us know how we can help – from support for you and your family in setting out what is fair and aligned to your wishes, through to helping people understand your values with regard to your money. It may even provide an opportunity for you to help your family much earlier in life and at a time when you are around to see the benefits of your generosity.