Pandemic prompts record number of estate disputes in England and Wales 2020

Thursday, 30 September 2021
The number of inheritance disputes heard in the England and Wales High Court reached an all-time high in 2020, according to research by law firm Boodle Hatfield.
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Individuals claiming to be entitled to a share or larger share of a deceased's estate brought 192 cases, up from the previous high of 188 in 2019 and 50 per cent higher than the 2018 figure.

The law firm suggests one reason for the increase is that people who suffered financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic were likely to be motivated to seek a larger inheritance. Moreover, many estates were inflated by the rising house prices driven by the stamp duty holiday, as well as the booming stock market.

Another explanation could be that social distancing requirements during lockdown may have disrupted succession planning, including wills prepared and witnessed over video calls.

Other factors have contributed to a longer-term trend. The case of Ilott v Blue Cross, finally resolved in 2018, opened the way to 'reasonable provision' claims by adult children to claim on a parent's estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, even where the children had had little or no contact with the parent for years. Continually rising house prices have increased the value of estates, while cohabitation and second marriages have become commonplace. Increasing longevity and the correspondingly larger elderly population has prompted many more will challenges based on lack of mental capacity or absence of knowledge. One of 2020's most unusual cases, Goss-Custard v Templeman, was a testamentary capacity challenge to the will of the very Lord who set down the 'golden rule' on mental capacity. Succession disputes over farming businesses have also proliferated, often based on proprietary estoppel challenges to wills.

A survey of 2,000 people, commissioned by the life insurance company Direct Line in 2019, found that a quarter of UK adults were willing to challenge a relative's will in court if they disagree with the division of the estate. There were 8,159 caveats entered in contested probate cases in 2017, rising by 6 per cent in 2018, the survey found. A parallel survey of family law specialists identified undue influence as the most common grounds for contesting a will.

The numbers of court hearings may be about to rise even higher. 'Because estate administration takes time, the height of the pandemic may not yet be reflected in the number of claims', comments James Woods-Davison, Associate in Boodle Hatfield's Private Wealth Disputes team.

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