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Court battles over inheritance hit all-time high as claimants seek a bigger share of estates

The number of High Court disputes over inheritance hit an all-time high last year* as more people try to claim a bigger share of estates, says Boodle Hatfield, the leading private wealth law firm.

The High Court saw 188 cases** issued in 2019 by individuals claiming to be entitled to a share, or larger share, of a deceased's estate. This was an increase of 47% on the 128 claims issued in 2018.

Boodle Hatfield says that as the average size of estates has increased over recent years, challenging the size of an inheritance is now a much more attractive prospect for some heirs. In particular, rapidly rising property prices in London and the South East have swelled the estates of many middle England families into the millions of pounds.

Boodle Hatfield says that the rise in cohabiting couples may also be a contributing factor to the rise in inheritance disputes. Unmarried couples that live together are not automatically entitled to a share of the other's estate unless the deceased has made a will in their favour, which can lead to them pursuing a claim in court in order to inherit from their deceased partner.

High-profile court cases over the division of estates may also have raised awareness of heirs’ rights to seek a larger inheritance. These cases include Ilott v Mitson, in which a daughter disinherited by her mother fought all the way to the Supreme Court in 2017 to try to get a greater share of the estate.

Mark Lindley, Partner at Boodle Hatfield comments: “Challenging an estate has become increasingly common, with higher estate values making it more worthwhile for spouses, partners, children and other potential claimants to seek a bigger slice of that pie.”

“More complex family structures, with unmarried partners, or second or third spouses with children from previous relationships, can create a web of competing claims on a person's estate.  It can be hard for testators, particularly where most of the value is tied up in a property, to manage these competing claims and avoid disappointment.”

“While some claims make it all the way to court, there are a great many more that are compromised or abandoned long before that stage. Making a claim for a greater share of an estate may be less challenging if you were genuinely dependant on the deceased financially during their lifetime.  However, more distant or estranged claimants will find it a lot harder to obtain a meaningful share of an estate.”

* Year end December 31 2019. Source: Ministry of Justice

** Under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975

A quote from this article first appeared in The Times on 5th July 2020. 

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