A significant rise in asset prices coupled with an increased incidence of dementia has led to a notable uptick in inheritance disputes finding their way into courts across England and Wales, as reported by The Financial Times.
Legal experts caution that family conflicts over wills are becoming more prevalent, with opportunistic relatives, partners, and even professional caregivers taking advantage of vulnerable elderly individuals. The stakes are higher for heirs due to the escalating values of estates.
Charles Lloyd, head of private client disputes at law firm Macfarlanes, notes a growing number of such disputes, highlighting the concern among legal professionals. Recent High Court cases involve disputes such as that of an 85-year-old woman, where her three sons alleged that their sister manipulated her against them to inherit the house.
In another case, relatives claimed that a daughter controlled an elderly woman’s diet and coerced her into denying other family members a share of the estate, leading to the invalidation of wills in both instances. However, solicitors stress the difficulty of successful claims and call for strengthened laws to mitigate the potential for financial abuse. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated vulnerabilities, as older individuals had limited access to relatives and medical professionals.
Probate disputes in the High Court have doubled over the past seven years, with a notable increase in legal fights over finances in the Court of Protection. The rise in disputes is attributed in part to longer life expectancy, an increase in dementia cases, and disagreements arising from intergenerational wealth transfers.
The average British household’s net assets have increased by 20% in real terms, reaching £302,500 by 2020. However, disputes often involve estates of significantly higher value, with wealth unevenly distributed between generations. Inheritance tax is projected to generate £7.2 billion this tax year, more than double the amount a decade ago.
Legal options for claimants under English law include challenging the validity of a will on grounds such as “fraudulent calumny” and “want of knowledge and approval.” However, persuading a court can be challenging and expensive, leading to tragic outcomes for families involved.
Experts suggest that pre-emptive conversations about asset division could potentially prevent future disputes, offering a way to limit challenges and maintain family harmony during emotionally difficult times.