A battle of wills - the rise of contentious probate claims
The last couple of years have seen a rise in the number of disputed wills and contentious probate cases coming before the courts, both here in Northern Ireland and across the water.
There have been a number of recent decisions which have been well publicised in the media, in particular the Gill v RSPCA case in England, where the High Court in London overturned a will that left a Yorkshire couple's entire £2.35 million estate to the RSPCA instead of to their only daughter, and the local case of Mulholland v the Personal Representatives of Seamus Kane deceased.
In this case, Anne Mulholland from Ballycastle started a relationship with farmer Seamus Kane after leaving school in the 1970s at the age of 16. The relationship lasted until Mr Kane's death in 2004, and according to Ms Mulholland and other witnesses, he promised many times that she would "always have a roof over her head and some land". However, he failed to make a will and his estate passed to his sister and brother. Ms Mulholland began proceedings in 2007 and at the High Court in September 2009 was awarded £250,000 from Mr Kane's estate to buy a house and land.
There are a number of factors to explain the rise in the number of disputes.
Many people mistakenly think they can save money by using ‘DIY’ will kits. However, to ensure a will is valid, it must comply with various legal technicalities, both in the format of the will and also in the way the will is signed and witnessed. If any of these technicalities is not adhered to, the will cannot be legally enforced.
- Complex family relationships
Family arrangements are now more complex than ever before. This has resulted in a rise in claims taken by former spouses, unmarried partners and children from first marriages and previous relationships.
Challenges to wills can be made on the grounds of incapacity. People are living longer than ever and consequently into the stage where their mental health declines.
Although the recession has resulted in a contraction in property prices, on the whole property prices have risen significantly over the past ten years, which has in turn led to the increase in the value of most people’s estates.
Litigation involving disputed wills and disappointed beneficiaries involves not just high financial costs, but also high emotional costs, as these cases invariably pit family members against each other – with long-lasting consequences for the family relationship in the future.
However, there are some steps you can take to help prevent such disputes arising after your death.
- Take professional legal advice when preparing your will. This will ensure that your will is in the correct format and is properly executed.
- Update your will regularly, particularly if there is a change in your family circumstances, i.e. marriage, divorce or birth of a child.
- Write a letter of wishes to explain your reasons for making your particular will, especially where a family member is excluded.
Should you require further information on the issues raised in this article, please contact Brid on 028 9055 3334, by email firstname.lastname@example.org
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