‘Last will and testament’ – but not the last word

There are more and more disputes over wills, new figures show. The number of claims issued in the High Court increased by 10% in 2015 alone. While there have always been challenges to wills from a beneficiary who receives a smaller legacy than expected, or from someone left out of a will entirely, it seems that the spike in claims has very modern causes.

Firstly, there are now higher levels of divorce and remarriage in society. It means that extended families and step-families may consider that they have a claim on the deceased’s estate.

Then there is the relentless rise in the value of properties. A bigger estate means there is a greater incentive to make a claim: there is more to play for.

Finally, people are simply living longer. When someone lives to an advanced age, they may feel that their middle-aged children are already established in life and so do not need a legacy. After they die, those children may view the matter somewhat differently.

If someone is disappointed with what they have received (or not received) in a will they can make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision For Families and Dependants) Act. In assessing their claim, the court will take into account the financial needs of the Claimant and those provided for in the will, and also the size of the estate.

In one recent case, after Mrs June Fairbrother died her family discovered that they had been left only modest legacies in her will. She had named animal charities as her main beneficiaries. She had been an animal lover. Her nephew, Mr King, claimed that she had promised him her house and given him the deeds. There was also a note she had signed stating this. The house had risen in value to £350,000.

Mr King challenged the will in court and also made a claim under the Inheritance Act. In the High Court, he succeeded in overturning the will, but the charities appealed to the Court of Appeal. The appeal court decided in their favour ( King v Chiltern Dog Rescue Society (2015) EWCA Civ 581): no ‘deathbed gift’ had been established. However, Mr King was awarded £75,000 in his claim under the Act.

The case is another reminder of an important factor to remember when someone makes a will. If they are leaving only a small inheritance to a relative, or leaving them out entirely, they should leave a note or letter of wishes explaining why this is being done.