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Inheritance Disputes on the Rise

There are currently a limited number of bases for challenging a will.

There are six main grounds on which to challenge the validity of a Will. The six grounds upon which this can be done are:
1 Lack of testamentary capacity
2 Lack of knowledge and approval
3 Undue influence
4 Forgery
5 Lack of due execution
6 Fraudulent calumny

The Court of Appeal recently overturned a decision that had found that a daughter had exercised undue influence over her mother in executing a will which cut her brothers out of the estate.

The full case report in Rea v Rea & Ors [2024] EWCA Civ 169 (23 February 2024) can be found using the following link:

This case was headline news in the Daily Mail

The decision makes it more difficult for disappointed beneficiaries to prove undue influence in such cases as there is now almost a presumption that there is no undue influence even if a beneficiary has persuaded a relative to change their will. The beneficiary has to act coercively, not just persuasively. The starting point is that undue influence is improbable. The Court of Appeal judges said that:

“The extent, if any, to which it is appropriate to have regard to inherent probabilities will thus be affected by the particular facts. Even so, it seems to me that it will commonly be appropriate to proceed on the basis that undue influence is inherently improbable. As I have said, “undue influence” signifies coercion in this context, and potential beneficiaries are surely less likely to resort to coercion than to rely on affection, gratitude or even persuasion.”

“I would accept that undue influence can be proved without demonstrating that the circumstances are necessarily inconsistent with any alternative hypothesis. On the other hand, the circumstances must be such that undue influence is more probable than any other hypothesis. If another possibility is just as likely, undue influence will not have been established. When making that assessment, moreover, it may well be appropriate to proceed on the basis that undue influence is inherently improbable.”

This decision was handed down coincidentally at the same time as the Guardian reported that thousands of families are becoming embroiled in inheritance disputes leading to a record volume of “ruinously expensive” court cases.

The increasing value of estates and the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a tsunami of disappointed beneficiaries making claims. It was reported that as many as 10,000 people are disputing wills every year. In 2021-22, 195 disputes went in front of judges, up from 145 in 2017, but that many other cases are resolved before going to Court. This is not surprising as inheritance disputes are possibly the most stressful types of dispute pitting siblings against each other, closely followed by divorce and boundary disputes. 

The case of Ms Rea is a prime example of this. Not only did the case go to trial and then go to an appeal before a High Court judge, but then ended up in the Court of Appeal where the previous appeal decision was overturned. The case went to Court three times. Ms Rea feared being made homeless and bankrupt by the litigation, but that begs the question of how her three brothers can afford the enormous costs incurred (apparently £280,000) and which now may well fall to them to pay (as well as their own) or after the event litigation insurers.

The Court of Appeal decision is likely to result in fewer claims being brought as it will be more difficult to establish undue influence which is one of the main bases for bringing a claim.

There are currently proposals being considered to digitise the wills process. Ironically there is less likely to be a dispute when someone dies intestate as opposed to dying and leaving a will cutting out a family member. In theory a person has freedom to leave their money to whomsoever they please but in reality if a family member is cut out this can result in a dispute arising. A person may not intend to leave their estate to lawyers but this is effectively what can happen when a case goes to Court.

We recommend mediating inheritance claims or will disputes. Resolving matters in an amicable fashion can save the costs of litigation consuming the estate and a lot of heartache and stress.