Q&A with Claire Cox, Head of Inheritance Disputes

There has been a huge increase in inheritance disputes in recent years. This might involve a person contesting the validity or interpretation of a Will, or where a person feels unfairly left out of a Will. More than 2,300 Will disputes have been heard in the High Court in the past 10 years, and this doesn’t include the huge amount of claims that are settled outside of court. These kinds of disputes, often between family members, can be very complex as well as being extremely stressful for everyone involved.

We sat down with Claire Cox, head of our dedicated inheritance disputes team to discuss why inheritance disputes are on the rise and some of the things you can do to prevent them from happening.

What are some of the reasons that might be causing the rise of inheritance disputes we are seeing in the UK?

Based on the sorts of cases we are seeing, the growing complexity of contemporary family systems is definitely one factor. It’s not unusual for there to be several stepchildren, half-siblings, and ex-spouses involved in an inheritance dispute as more and more individuals get divorced and remarried. Who should receive what as a result of this can lead to considerable uncertainty and conflict. Many people do not know that certain categories of people (spouses, financial dependents, children of the deceased) have a potential claim to an estate of a loved one, and these claims are incredibly expensive.

I think another driver is the increasing value of real estate and other assets, particularly in the Cotswolds and Oxfordshire regions that we service. There’s more at stake now that real estate values have increased over time.
And where individuals are living longer than ever before, there are more opportunities for disagreements to occur. It could be that, many years after making a Will, that person’s financial situation or family dynamics have changed, and these changes may not have been considered at the time the Will was written. If someone’s Will has not been kept up to date, then there are likely to be disagreements as to what the person’s intentions really were.

Also, the number of people who die without a Will. More than half of adults in the UK do not have a Will in place. This could put people in a precarious financial situation, forcing them to file a claim for financial support from the estate. Additionally, DIY Wills can be challenging to manage and may wind up creating just as many issues as not having a Will at all.

What should people do if they find themselves involved in an inheritance dispute with family members?

Conflicts over inheritance can be loaded with emotion, and could cause serious arguments and hurt feelings where people see this as an assault on the memory of the deceased. This could result in long-term estrangement or resentment since they can be emotionally charged and significantly strain family ties.

For this reason, it’s good to obtain expert guidance as soon as you can. By understanding the law involved, and knowing what your options are, you can reduce the potential effects of the conflict. It could help keep disputes from getting worse and potentially cut down on the amount of time, effort, and money needed to settle the conflict. A cause of worry and financial strain for everyone concerned, these disagreements can also be time-consuming and expensive.

How can you and your team help to resolve these issues when they arise?

I always take on board the specific family dynamics and will work with my client to tailor the approach to the case, depending on the personalities of those involved and the desired outcome. For example, some clients prefer to take a more conciliatory approach to preserve relationships, or because they believe that the other party will become entrenched in their position. Others are of the view that we need to take a very firm stance, it is important to recognise that every case is different and emotions play a strong part in the direction of these cases.

A particularly effective method is mediation. It can provide everyone a chance to speak up and contribute to peaceful conflict resolution. It entails both parties getting together with a trained mediator, whose responsibility it is to actively broker an agreement between the parties respective positions, and reach a compromise. It is rare for the parties to actually see each other, and they are often now held online.

The disagreement might need to be resolved in court if mediation fails to assist the parties to come to an agreement. The judge will make the final decision after hearing from all parties involved in the case. It can be an expensive path because normally the losing party pays the successful party’s legal fees, so it is not without risk.

What can people do to help avoid any disagreements between family members after they die?

There are several things you can do to lessen the likelihood that your heirs would argue with one another after your passing. The best course of action is to talk to your family when you make your Will. Many people find it difficult to talk about death, and for those who do manage to have the conversation, it can be a challenging subject to broach. Although it is not required by law, discussing your Will and its contents with loved ones beforehand can help reduce the element of surprise and allow you to directly explain your choices.

In order to ensure that your affairs are current in the case of your death, a Will often needs to be revised every five years. However, there are a number of life milestones, such as marriage or a civil partnership, new family members, lifetime gifts and property purchases, that should serve as a reminder to revise a Will. Older Wills should be destroyed to eliminate any doubt or ambiguity, even though the most recent version will invalidate any earlier versions. Also, solicitors can give advice about who might be appropriate to be Executors of the estate, as it is surprising how often I see two siblings appointed who cannot stand each other – often leading to costly disputes.

Making sure that a Will is made freely, and without pressure or influence is essential. Witnesses should be present in person, and you should seek the advice of a qualified solicitor to help you write your Will.

Talk to us

If you would like any advice on resolving Wills, Inheritance, Trusts & Probate Disputes, or understanding the grounds for contesting a Will then do not hesitate to get in touch with our dedicated inheritance disputes team.