The Times is reporting that once again there has been a steady rise in the number of grown children initiating court action to challenge their parents' wills.
As we ourselves have previously observed, these increased levels of litigation are being fuelled by escalating property prices in the UK, which is in turn directly impacts on the value of people’s estates.
The latest statistics highlighted by the Times reveal that the number of cases involving adult children disputing their parents' estates in the High Court is up on previous years. But the figures cited by the newspaper (a rise from 104 cases in 2014 to 116 in 2015) if anything underplays the significance of the phenomenon. Critically, the statistics do not take into account the number of inheritance disputes settling without the need for court action, or, perhaps more importantly, the number of cases being brought in the County Court – the forum of choice for most contentious probate solicitors.
The year-on-year increase in UK residential property prices has been causing the value of the average net estate in this country to rise inexorably in recent times. In addition, the greater and more widespread ownership of property means that the percentage of estates incorporating property as an asset is also increasing. As a result there are now many more estates of significant value than ever before. This has created a heightened risk of family members falling out over money and a much greater incentive for people to go to law to dispute their inheritance.
The trend is compounded by the increasing diversity and complexity of family arrangements in twenty first century Britain. With second and third marriages now being commonplace among the elderly sections of our population, tensions often arise among the children they leave behind, with rifts between natural and step children being particularly likely to lead to inheritance disputes arising.
People's expectations are also on the rise. Many children are making long term financial decisions on the assumption they will receive an inheritance from their parents. When ‘their' inheritance fails to materialise it can have enormous financial repercussions and again act as a catalyst for litigation.
Slee Blackwell contentious probate partner, Lee Dawkins, commented:
‘Many children seem to regard their parents’ property as their own. But they are wrong to do so. Unlike neighbouring jurisdictions such France and Spain, we have no culture of ‘forced heirship’ in England and Wales. In this country people have 'testamentary freedom', meaning we can leave our estate to whoever or whatever we wish – including the local cats’ home should we so desire.’
‘The concept of testamentary freedom is only tempered by the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. This legislation was introduced to tackle the most obvious cases unjust hardship arising on the death of an individual, such as when a husband who has all the assets in his sole name fails to make provision for his widow. But the Inheritance Act has been extended over the years and is now routinely used by cohabitants and, increasingly, adult children who feel they have not been adequately provided for.’
We fully expect these trends to continue and anticipate increasing levels of contentious probate and inheritance litigation.
The risk of litigation cannot be completely avoided in any estate, but people making a Will can minimise the dangers by giving full consideration to the competing claims of everyone who may have the expectation of provision. We would advise that particular care should be taken where step families are involved and encourage an open dialogue with key family members which anticipates the varied scenarios that might occur.
We operate a FREE inheritance helpline on 0808 139 1599.
[This article was posted on 26 September 2016]