Family disputes over wills and probate continue to rise

A 5% increase in disputes in 2023 could be attributed to complex family dynamics and concerns over fairness. Common reasons for contesting include improper legal procedures and doubts about the testator's mental capacity. With longer lifespans, issues of undue influence are also rising. Proper legal drafting and clear communication can prevent conflicts, crucial in the already stressful time of bereavement.

The number of family disputes over wills and probate rose by just over 5% in 2023, according to the latest family court statistics. There are several reasons why this might happen. The increase in the number of second and even third marriages make life more complicated these days. People making a will may have to weigh up the conflicting interests of their children against those of their second wife or husband. They may also have to consider the needs of their children from different relationships.

It’s also true that some parents feel less connected to their children than in the past. This could be because families are more mobile these days and children may move hundreds of miles away, making it difficult to maintain a strong parent-child bond. Even if children live nearby, busy lifestyles can mean they rarely find time to visit their parents.

The result is that more and more of us choose to spread our wealth when we make our wills, even at the risk of family disputes. This has led to an increase in the number of people prepared to mount a legal challenge if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly.

One of the main reasons for contesting a will is that the correct legal formalities were not observed. The person making the will – known as the testator – must sign it in the presence of two witnesses. The witnesses must also sign the will confirming that they observed the testator adding their signature.

The will can be signed on behalf of the testator if they are incapable of doing so themselves, but it must be in their presence and under their direction.

The other main reason to contest a will is concern over the testator’s state of mind. They must have testamentary capacity, which means they must know what they are doing and understand what the will is saying. The will could be ruled invalid if it can be shown that the person lacked this capacity - usually through illness. This has become more of an issue as people live longer and develop age-related illnesses such as dementia.

This can leave them prey to unscrupulous family members or even carers who may persuade them to change their will in a way they would not do if they were in good health. There should be no undue influence from anyone trying to benefit from the will. If you can prove there was undue influence, then the will would be ruled invalid.

A will can also be contested if you believe it has been forged, although that can be difficult to prove.

No one wants to leave a will that will lead to conflict among the family. The best way to avoid this is to make sure your will is drawn up properly by a solicitor to ensure it is legally binding and reflects your wishes clearly.

It also helps sometimes to explain your decisions. For example, if you want to exclude someone who might otherwise expect to inherit then it’s a good idea to explain why you want to do that. A statement of wishes will be recognised by the courts and avoid any potential disputes.

Relatives will already be under stress because of the bereavement. The last thing they want is to get embroiled in legal action.

Anyone wanting to challenge a will must do so within six months of probate being granted.

Please contact us if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of wills and probate on 020 8290 0333 or email

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