An increasing number of families are taking court action over the contents of a will, family lawyers say.

Reasons for this may include a rise in “non-traditional” families, particularly where a second or third partner is close in age to children from a first marriage. Those children may then face a considerable wait if a will says money will pass to them once a parent’s partner dies.

Ian Bond, director of Talbots Law in the West Midlands and chairman of the Law Society’s committee on wills, told The Times newspaper that his firm had dealt with a 50 per cent increase in the number of contested wills last year in comparison to 2018.

And Jan Atkinson, an estates specialist at London law firm Osbornes, said her firm had handled three times as many cases this March as the same month last year.

“Children expect to be treated equally even if they went off to Australia 30 years ago and never came back to look after the parent,” Atkinson said. “You see ugly character traits coming out.”

Unlike in France, where children and dependents have clearly defined inheritance rights, UK law essentially allows someone to leave their money to whomever they choose. This can make the process of overturning a will a lot more difficult than many expect.

Bond explained: “An Englishman could leave it all to Battersea Dogs Home and the courts would say that if he’s taken the trouble to write a will it should be upheld as long as he was of sound mind when he wrote it.”

Spouses, children, people who cohabited with the deceased and any dependants can use the 1975 Inheritance Act to contest a will. However, to be successful, they have to prove that “reasonable provision” has not been made for them and they are in genuine financial need.

Earlier this month, the High Court dismissed a claim by a woman who said she should be given a £75,000 share of her father’s money by her terminally ill stepmother. However, the judge ruled that 32-year-old Carly Shapton had an “affluent” lifestyle and could not prove financial need.

Challenging a will can take up to two years in court, involve numerous lawyers for a range of beneficiaries and result in six-figure legal fees. Challenges normally focus on whether someone was under undue influence or not of sound mind at the time they made their will.