The heartbreak of losing a loved one is always hard. Dealing with the immediate aftermath is a blur of practicalities mixed with emotion and, once the funeral is over, then begins the uphill struggle of dealing with the administration of the estate.
Where a prudent approach and good planning has been involved, this usually means going through a will with a solicitor and dividing up the goods and chattels as instructed by the deceased. Imagine how distressing it can be then, to discover that a will is going to be contested – something that more and more families find themselves having to deal with for a variety of reasons.
The family of the late TV personality Sir Jimmy Savile face just such an ordeal after a woman alleging to be his illegitimate daughter lodged a claim against his £7.8m estate, the vast majority of which he left to charity. They are now awaiting the outcome of a DNA test the claimant hopes will prove her case. The claim was made under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, which says that everyone has an obligation to look after their spouse, children and other dependants.
In another court hearing, a couple’s adopted son went all the way to the Court of Appeal after missing out on an inheritance because his parents, for whom he had been sole carer, inadvertently signed each other’s wills instead of their own due to a simple administrative error. The mistake, which was only discovered after they died, meant that as far as the law was concerned, the couple had died intestate, enabling their two biological sons, to whom they were not close, to inherit the estate.
These examples show how much inheritance matters and underline the importance of accuracy and clarity when writing a will. It doesn’t matter if you belong to an extremely wealthy family or are from a more modest background, when loved ones miss out on assets they feel entitled to because of an honest mistake or family politics, it can be devastating.
Contentious probate is one of the fastest-growing areas of litigation, with more and more people willing to take legal action to try and recover money they believe is theirs. We see increasing numbers of cases where individuals and families are at war because the right level of advice wasn’t sought in the first place and details are being misinterpreted or left open to challenge from disappointed beneficiaries.
The tragedy is that it’s all too easy for legal fees to outweigh the value of an estate, and the heartache and time taken make it extremely hard for the family at the centre of the dispute, who simply want to be able to move on with their lives as best they can.
Making your will last a lifetime will require regular reviews to ensure it reflects your current situation and allows those you want to benefit to be safely and securely looked after. It’s not something you – or your family – can afford to get wrong.
Craig Williams is a partner in the litigation and dispute resolution team at Buckinghamshire law firm BP Collins LLP.