Wooden blocks representing an upward growth trend line

Inheritance disputes are on the rise. Recent statistics reported by the Ministry of Justice Family Court Statistics show that in 2023 there were 122 contested probate cases. This is an increase from 116 cases in 2022. However, these statistics are just the tip of the iceberg, with the vast majority of inheritance disputes being settled outside of a courtroom. Indeed, in February 2024 the Guardian reported that as many as 10,000 people in England and Wales are disputing wills every year.

Common types of inheritance dispute

An inheritance dispute can arise when someone alleges that they have a legal claim against the estate of a deceased. The most common challenges to an estate are as follows:

  1. A claim against the validity of a will.

The validity of a will can be challenged from a few angles. For example, it can be argued that:

a) the will does not comply with the formalities under the Wills Act 1837;

b) the testator lacked the required mental capacity to make a will;

c) the testator did not know and approve the contents of the will; and/or

d) the testator was unduly influenced into making a will in the terms that they did.

  1. A claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

This is a type of a claim that can be made by certain categories of individuals where they do not believe that reasonable financial provision has been made for them under the deceased’s will or, if there is not a will, under the rules of intestacy.

  1. A claim under the doctrine of proprietary estoppel.

To bring a proprietary estoppel claim, a claimant must show that they have been given a representation or assurance in relation to an interest in land which they reasonably relied on to their detriment. This claim is typically seen in farming families, where, for example, the younger generation have been assured that they will receive the family farm as inheritance if they work the land.

Why are inheritance disputes on the rise?

There are a multitude of factors which may help to explain why there is an increasing number of fallouts over inheritance.

Firstly, property prices have significantly increased in recent years, resulting in more valuable estates. This in turn increases the financial stakes; with more wealth available to inherit and, in some cases, to fight over. Similarly, the increase in the cost-of-living and the struggle of younger generations to enter the property market has arguably created a greater reliance on inheritance for some. When an expected inheritance does not materialise, this reliance can drive some individuals to take a risk on an inheritance claim to secure much-needed cash or property.

Family dynamics are also becoming more complicated. Increases in second marriages, stepchildren, children outside of marriage and other family dynamics can lead to disagreements when those dynamics are not reflected in a will or, if there was not a will, under the rules of intestacy.

Furthermore, life expectancy has increased and, with an ageing population, the number of people living with dementia is also rising. The NHS reports that there are more than 944,000 people in the UK who have dementia, and this is estimated to increase to more than 1 million by 2030. With a greater pool of elderly and vulnerable individuals, the likelihood of a claim that a will is invalid on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity or undue influence also increases.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also arguably played its part in driving the rise in inheritance disputes. Indeed, the lockdown regulations isolated some testators and created a need for electronically witnessed wills which, by their remote nature, can raise suspicions and open the door to an inheritance dispute.

It also seems true that public understanding and awareness of contentious probate cases has improved significantly in recent years. This is arguably in large part down to the role of the media in providing contested probate stories for mass public consumption. In the last year, the contested estates of Aretha Franklin and Prince have been widely reported in the news. The former dispute concerned the validity of a handwritten will found in the late singer’s sofa, whilst the latter dispute arose due to the lack of a will and subsequent disagreements concerning how Prince’s multi-million estate should be distributed. Furthermore, television shows such as ‘The Inheritance’ and ‘The Inheritance Wars: Who Gets the Money?’ (both broadcast on Channel 5 in 2023) have also arguably assisted in improving public awareness of contentious probate cases, fuelling discussions which no doubt – in some cases – have led to an enquiry at the viewer’s local law firm.

What does this upward trend mean?

The increase in inheritance disputes emphasises the importance of early estate planning and having open discussions with family members as to your wishes and intentions for your estate. There are evidently many reasons why an estate may become disputed, and therefore acting pre-emptively and seeking appropriate professional advice is wise. Taking these steps will help to mitigate the risk of an inheritance dispute arising.

Although the recent focus of the media on such disputes is largely devised for entertainment, the reality is that pursuing an inheritance claim can be an emotional, lengthy, and costly process. Such a dispute should therefore not be entered into lightly, and it is prudent to seek specialist legal advice at an early stage should you find yourself in a dispute of this nature.