Families at war as contested will cases soar

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The Independent Online

The family drawing room used to be the preferred forum for resolving messy disputes over inheritance. But more and more jealous children and cheated wives are taking acrimonious wrangles to court.

The number of families contesting a relative's will has risen by 200 per cent since 2004, according to one law firm. And high-profile disputes are being fought in public with increasing regularity. In November, for example, David Thorner, a labourer, inherited a 2.3m farm estate from his cousin following a two-year legal battle. And relatives of Golda Bechal, an 88-year-old widow, went to the High Court to challenge her will after she left most of her 10m fortune to the owners of her favourite restaurant.

While the most common grievance is that such wills are "unfair", there has also been a surge in documents being contested because of alleged mistakes, or the fact that the person making the will was incapacitated or put under undue pressure.

Henry Frydenson, the chairman of the Association of Contentious Trust and Probate Specialists, believes 2008 will see more of these cases being played out in court. "People are better informed of the possibility of pursuing claims under the Inheritance Act," he said. "For example, people can make a claim if they feel they are not being properly provided for in the will, mostly wives and children, but also anyone who is financially dependent on the testator. Or they may have been left out of some of the provision and found that the vast majority has gone to other people."

In such circumstances, Mr Frydenson added, a claimant should ask the solicitor who formalised the documents for more information about the process. Brabners Chaffe Street, a law firm with branches in Manchester, Liverpool and Preston, has seen a 200 per cent rise in the number of contested wills since 2005.

Richard Bate, a private client partner at the practice, said the growing value of estates, the complicated structure of modern families and recent high-profile cases were all partly to blame.

Many people had no idea their wills could trigger litigation, he said, adding: "People leaving a will think they have a right to do whatever they want. That's not necessarily the case.

"There are formalities which need to be complied with. A technical flaw or uncertainty over wording can render them invalid. Even if a will is technically correct, claims may still be brought by relatives who feel they haven't been adequately provided for, and so advice is crucial in weighing up the likelihood and strength of that type of claim."

Inheritance disputes

* When businessman Branislav Kostic left 8m in his will to the Conservative Party, his son Zoran successfully challenged the bequest. In November, a court ruled that Mr Kostic Snr was not of sound mind when he drafted the two contested wills in the mid-1980s. His son told the court there was evidence his father suffered from paranoid delusions, which led to him believe Mrs Thatcher would save the world from "satanic monsters and freaks". A judge said the estate should be distributed according to an earlier will, written before Mr Kostic's illness, in which he left everything to his son.

* When the London-based property millionairess Golda Bechal died in 2004 she left a 10m fortune to her "best friends" Kim Sing Man and his wife, Bee Lian Man, who owned her favourite Chinese restaurant the Lian in Witham, Essex. Relatives of Ms Bechal, 88, were so incensed by her decision that they mounted a legal challenge at the High Court. After a lengthy hearing, Judge Sir Donald Rattee QC dismissed the family's claims on Mrs Bechal's estate.

* In 2005, the children of deceased lawyer Anthony Sherrington lost a court battle with their stepmother Yvonne over the contents of his 7m will. The children argued that their father failed to understand what he was doing when he altered his will to leave his entire fortune to his new wife. While sympathetic to their predicament, the appeal court found no evidence to suggest that Mr Sherrington did not know the effect of what he was doing.