Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Where there's a will… Family feuds lead to 700% increase in High Court disputes in five years

  • @cahalmilmo

The number of family feuds over disputed wills that result in cases before the High Court has risen dramatically as financial pressures and changing relationships drive a boom in legacy litigation.

Figures obtained by The Independent show a 700 per cent increase over the last five years in the number of actions launched at London’s High Court to challenge the provisions made in wills.In addition, the number of cases  aimed at having whole wills declared invalid has nearly doubled.

If actions concerning trusts – often used to hold assets to be passed on to the next generation – are included, the total number of disputes involving the assets of living or dead family members being considered by the High Court rises to 300. This is compared to 95 in 2006.

The rise is partly attributed to the recession, which has seen the value of assets including property fall sharply. This has triggered arguments between relatives and dependants who find themselves with much smaller sums than anticipated.

But lawyers say it is also being fuelled by the rise in remarriages, step-families and cohabitation. Increasingly complex family arrangements, combined with the fact that relatives are now more likely to live further apart, has increased the likelihood that of will disputes inflamed by long held and un-aired resentments

The perils of imprecise wills and family disputes were highlighted last week when the son of the thrice-married actor Peter Ustinov declared himself nearly bankrupt following a nine-year legal battle over his father’s estate.

A High Court judge threw out an  attempt by Igor Ustinov to bring his battle to secure his father’s assets brought to the British courts, leaving him with a £114,000 legal bill. Following a previous ruling which overturned a 1968 written in pencil, Sir Peter was declared to have died intestate.

Fay Copeland, a partner with City law firm Wedlake Bell, said: “There is an undoubted growth in the number of these cases. People whose financial situation might not be secure because of the current climate might find themselves getting a smaller amount from a will than they had anticipated and that can often be the starting point for litigation.

“Similarly, families are more diverse and geographically spread out. Families are not as close as they used to be and when, for example, you have step-families you can see cases where people feel usurped or pushed out and that can form the basis for a dispute.

“The advice is to write a proper will but also for people to try and explain their decisions before their death. Around three quarters of cases are settled by mediation, which allows emotional as well as financial grievances to be aired.”

Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures show that the number of disputes  over individual clauses in wills rose from 10 in 2006 to 82 in 2011, the  latest year for which figures are available.

Cases seeking entire wills to be declared null and void, for example where the deceased lacked the capacity  to make informed decisions, rose from 73 to 135.