This Financial Times article charts the course of the increase of will and probate claims in recent years. Whilst the figures are up to 2017, Direct Line Group research found that an analysis of figures supplied by HM Courts and Tribunals service shows the number of disputes regarding applications for probate increased by an estimated 6 per cent in 2018.
Why the increase? One of the main drivers is that family homes, often the only asset in the estate, are worth more. One need only look at house prices in the UK over 1975 – 1996 which hovered around £110,000. The next 20 years saw the average price rise to nearer £215,000, well beyond inflation. For a graph, see: https://www.allagents.co.uk/house-prices-adjusted/.
If the family home has significantly increased in value, there could be equity in the estate which is far beyond the savings or earnings the elderly generation enjoyed in their lifetime. Whereas many people might be disappointed with the contents of a will of a loved one, the costs, time and uncertainty of a claim at Court may simply not be worth it. But sadly, where there is more to fight over, the cost-benefit changes.
There are multiple other reasons for increased claims, including the increase of cohabiting couples who may not be provided for in an intestacy. There is also greater awareness, for example, the Ilot v Mitson case brought under the Inheritance Act 1975 Act, and other high profile Court cases.
So, despite testamentary freedom (the right to choose what happens to your estate when you die) being a fundamental tenet of English law, it is important to recognise and plan for the eventuality that someone could challenge your will. Whilst no process is bullet-proof to a challenge, there are certain steps which are sensible to take:
1. Talk to your family, and friends and those who you wish to benefit from your estate
2. Seek advice from a will drafter and estate planner.
3. Record your reasons for making decisions, especially if what you leave in your will might raise eyebrows or which could have a negative reaction.
Claims can be expensive and an estate needs to be of sufficient value to be worth contesting. However, the rise of property values in many parts of the UK over the past decade means a growing proportion of estates are now seen as worth fighting over.