Cost of living crisis blamed for huge increase in inheritance disputes over relatives' wills

A woman gets professional financial advice
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Legal experts have reported a huge rise in inheritance disputes which they believe has been triggered by factors including the cost of living crisis. Data shows a 34 per cent increase over five years in people challenging the wills of deceased relatives to get what they argue is their fair share of the estate.

Fights over wills that have ended up in court have risen from 145 to 195 between 2017 and 2022, according to Higgs LLP, while Google searches for 'disputing a will' have gone up by 60 per cent in the past year alone.

Craig Ridge, Contentious Probate Lawyer at Higgs LLP, has explained the process of disputing a will and why the cost of living crisis may have contributed to this increase. He says other driving factors in more people challenging wills include TV shows focusing on real-life cash battles as well as well-known cases involving celebrities' estates.


What is contentious probate?

"Contentious probate relates to the legal disputes regarding the distribution of a deceased person's will, trusts and estates or, to put it simply, challenging a will. These conflicts can often occur if a party perceives mistakes, has issues with will executors, believes they have been treated unfairly, or have unmet expectations."

When can a will be contested?

"Wills can be contested on various grounds. One such ground is if there is evidence that the testator lacked mental capacity - for instance, due to dementia, severe learning disabilities, or a mental health condition - that could have affected their decision-making ability.

"Other grounds for contesting a will include being financially dependent on the deceased but not being included in the will, instances of undue influence or coercion affecting the testator's decisions, or suspicions of forgery or fraud.

"It is important to recognise that the right to testamentary freedom is highly valued, so a will generally cannot be challenged simply because its terms are unfavourable to an individual – another significant factor must come into play."

Why do you think disputes over wills are increasing?

"It's impossible to put a finger on a singular reason why the number of disputes over wills is increasing. Instead, there are a range of factors to consider.

"Firstly, the cost of living crisis has made it more difficult to afford houses and assets, leading individuals to rely more on the inheritances of deceased relatives. Secondly, there is heightened awareness about the possibility of contesting wills, partly due to celebrity cases such as Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, and Nina Wang which have made their way into the popular press.

"Additionally, the rise of TV shows focusing on inheritance conflicts has raised public awareness, prompting more people to consider whether they might be entitled to a larger share of an estate than initially bequeathed."

What would you advise for people struggling to resolve disputes?

"Contesting a will can be extremely difficult for families who are already grieving, and we’d always encourage individuals to resolve disputes outside of the court as it can be a lengthy and emotionally taxing process.

"However, we recognise that amicable resolutions are not always feasible, and disputes can become passionate, long-winded, and distressing. If an agreement cannot be reached, it is essential for families to seek the assistance of a legal professional, especially one with expertise in mediation and financial dispute resolution."

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