Outdated laws lead to rise in court disputes over legacies

Outdated laws and complex modern family structures are combining to cause a sharp jump in the number of inheritance disputes reaching the courts.

The number of cases launched by people unhappy about their inheritance increased 86 per cent in a year, says City law firm Wedlake Bell.

High Court statistics show that claims relating to the provision for dependents soared from 43 in 2007 to 80 in 2008.

"The rise in the number of divorces followed by a second, sometimes third, marriage means that there is a lot of scope for disputes over inheritance," says Fay Copeland, a partner at Wedlake Bell.

Many disputes arise when a person dies without a will, leaving their estate to be distributed not according to their wishes but under intestacy rules that Wedlake Bell describes as "outdated". In these cases, many relatives are forced to apply to the courts for a portion of the estate.

"Individuals are advised to minimise the risk of disputes by writing a well-considered will, supported by a letter confirming their wishes," says Ms Copeland.

The Law Commission is reviewing the intestacy rules and will look at provision for unmarried couples. But Wedlake Bell says there is no fixed date for when legislative reforms, if any, are to be introduced.