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How to avoid an inheritance dispute

Last week a farmer’s daughter dubbed a ‘real life Cinderella’ by the media won her case for a fair share of her parent’s £7 million estate, after suing them for changing their Will.

The woman, who was regularly left to work at the family farm while her sisters pursued their own interests, had been promised that the farm would be left to her in return for her contribution. However in 2009 her parents reneged on this promise and changed their Will to leave all three siblings an equal share. A bitter family dispute followed culminating in a decision by the Court that the parents should be held accountable for the promises they made to their daughter.

Unfortunately inheritance disputes are not uncommon. While a study released by Dying Matters this week cited that 80% of people believe that all adults should have a Will to help avoid inheritance disputes, in reality only 36% have actually written a Will and 32% of people have had a dispute over money or property following the death of a loved one.

With an increase in second marriages later in life, many unmarried couples living together without making proper end of life arrangements, and a rise in so-called ‘DIY Wills’, it is little wonder that a recent report by the Ministry of Justice found that the number of disputed Wills is on the rise.

Inheritance disputes are understandably difficult for everyone involved. While the above case is particularly complex due to the woman’s long-term investment in the family farm and the perceived contractual value of the promises made to her, there are a number of steps that we can all take to help reduce the likelihood of inheritance disputes.

Write a Will

While a recent report has indicated that only a third of people have written a Will, a professionally drafted Will is one of the most important documents a person can have.  A Will not only clarifies what happens to your assets after you die, and how these should be managed, but if done properly can also help reduce the likelihood of any disputes happening after you are gone.

Use a professional

While access to DIY Wills provides a tempting option, a lack of care can often lead to unnecessary problems and family disputes. Instructions in DIY Wills are often unclear or ambiguous. Sometimes they are not signed, dated or witnessed correctly and quite often do not consider the tax implications, potentially leaving beneficiaries in financial difficulty. While the costs of a DIY Will may seem lower, the value gained from the stress free management of an estate on losing a loved one simply can’t be underestimated.

Be open and honest with beneficiaries

Many people are understandably uncomfortable discussing dying and death. The recent survey for the Dying Matters Coalition of care organisations found that 51% of people have not made their partner aware of their end of life wishes. However, while talking to loved ones cannot guarantee avoiding a disputed Will situation, making sure everyone understands your wishes can ensure these wishes are not misconstrued after you are gone. If everyone knows how you want your estate to be distributed, there is less likelihood of subsequent surprise and disappointment which often play a key part in Will disputes.

How to deal with a disputed Will

When a disputed Will does arise, it is vital to deal with it quickly. In general the main types of disputes that arise are:

• Where the deceased failed to make a Will
• Where the deceased did not leave you anything in their Will and you relied on them financially
• Where you are a beneficiary but are being challenged over your inheritance
• Where you believe that the trustees or executors of the Will are acting negligently
• Where you are a trustee or executor and have had a claim made against you or the estate.

A disputed Will is inevitably a highly emotional situation that needs to be handled with skill and sensitivity, as such mediation and arbitration are encouraged to try to minimise the strain on family relations. Compromise is also recommended wherever possible.

Where conciliation can’t be reached, you do have the option of going to probate court. Sadly, these types of dispute often come with a huge amount of personal distress which can make them difficult to resolve. To ensure that a stressful family situation is not enflamed further, and that a successful outcome is reached, a solicitor with specialist experience in dealing with disputed Wills is vital.

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