The number of disputes over inheritance is on the rise, as recent research from Direct Line Insurance found one in four people would challenge a will if they were unhappy with the way assets were distributed. Last year, it was revealed that the number of disputes fought in the High Court reached a record of 192 in 2020.

In the UK, Wills are public in order to ensure the estate is properly administrated, to prevent fraud and to alert those who may not expect to receive some benefit, or who may have a claim against the estate.

Some lawyers have attributed the rise in the number of cases to the cost of living crisis and decades of house price growth, which has given people a greater incentive to challenge a Will they believe to be unjust. If the deceased owned their own home, this can increase the size of estate they leave, which makes the cost of bringing a claim seem more worthwhile.

Between October 2020 and April 2021, law firm JMW Solicitors saw a 111% increase in enquiries about contesting a will compared with the six months prior. This could be partially lockdown related as more people died unexpectedly, sometimes without updating their Will. But disputes were on the rise even before the Covid-19 pandemic, which could be due to factors such as changing family structures.

To challenge a Will you need to have a valid legal reason, for example, the deceased wasn’t sound of mind when they created the Will or wasn’t aware of the full contents. Other reasons include fraud, coercion, errors or unfair exclusion of someone the deceased was financially responsible for.

The cost of a dispute can increase significantly, depending on the nature of the challenge being made and how long it takes to reach a resolution. Which spoke to solicitors and families who had contested a Will and found that inheritance disputes can cost tens of thousands even without a trial, and can rise above £100,000 if it goes to court.

Alison Parry, Partner and Head of Wills and Trusts Disputes at JMW, said “We are seeing more families in conflict over much smaller numbers. A Will is never iron-clad but it does show why we perhaps need to take a more strategic approach to Will writing, thinking about potential points of conflict and whether there is anything that can be done to prevent disputes. A Will should also be revisited after major life changes – that’s particularly important for people with fraught relationships with loved ones, or who have more complex family set-ups.”

As probate researchers, Fraser and Fraser work to provide specialist research and support to the legal profession. We can trace those who are entitled to a share of an estate; if they are named in a Will but cannot be found, we can work to discover their whereabouts. We can’t control whether a Will might be contested but we work hard to ensure that everyone who is entitled to a share of estate is located and notified, and that the estate is administered correctly.