Probate Disputes

Contentious probate cases increase

Figures have just been released which reveal that the number of High Court contentious probate cases have doubled since 2006 – no doubt as a result of increasing financial pressure on families left behind.
 
663 contentious probate cases were heard by the High Court last year, although it is thought that hundreds more are usually settled before a case reaches this stage.
 
Wills can be challenged if it can be proven that the deceased was not of sound mind when they had the document prepared, or that they were coerced into leaving their money to a specific individual. In some instances, if any remaining children or dependants who relied upon income received from the deceased during their lifetime, can prove that their future has not been adequately provided for, the Will can then in specific circumstances, also be overturned.
 
The Law Commission is in the process of appealing for a change to intestacy rules but in the meantime, a responsible and experienced probate practitioner should always encourage any disputes over a Will to be settled before expensive Court costs are incurred.

Is the number of probate disputes rising?

Statistics by the Ministry of Justice have shown that the number of probate disputes in London has rose by 19% in 2011. There were 556 claims issued at the High Court in London in 2010, involving wills, trusts and estates. This figure increased to 663 cases for 2011. In 2006, 2 years before the 2008 crisis, there were just 310 cases; that’s an increase of 46.75%. 
 
There have also been a number of high profile cases in the media recently;
 
Thomas Kinkada – The wife and girlfriend of the artist known as the Painter of Light are in dispute over his $60 million estate. His mistress produced a shaky, hand-written will that states she should inherit a large portion of assets.
 
Jimmy Saville – left the majority of his £7.3 million estate to charity in his will.  Probate has been interrupted after a woman claiming to be his illegitimate daughter stepped forward to make a claim on the star’s fortune.
 
Liliane Bettencourt –L'Oreal heiress and France’s richest woman has been declared unfit to manage her financial affairs. A 3 year court battle resulted in her daughter obtaining a guardianship order. As her health declined, Alzheimers sufferer Liliane changed her will making photographer Francois-Marie Banier sole heir to her billion dollar estate. 
 
These statistics certainly seem to imply that the increase in disputes can be attributed to the recession. The property crash has meant that estates are worth a lot less than they were. There’s a lot less to go around and beneficiaries can be shocked to discover they won’t inherit a life-changing sum. Relatives who have financial problems themselves cause by the recession will naturally be more likely to contest a will too.
 
2 thirds of Brits actually die intestate (without a will), and estate distribution is determined by the laws of intestacy. These laws have been criticised for being out-dated, bearing little relevance to modern families. An example of this is that common law spouses are not entitled to inherit. This can have serious implications for the survivor who, in theory, can be left destitute. As co-habitation is so prevalent these days, many more people are being affected by this. Families of today come in all shapes and sizes and the Inheritance Act does not take this into account. This may also account for rising numbers of contentious probate cases.

What is an interim grant?

An interim grant is usually approved by the Court if there is some sort of contention during the probate process, allowing an independent third party to continue working on the administration until the problem reaches a conclusion.
 
The interim grant is only permitted to be in force during the period of the Court case and tends to be given to an accountant or solicitor. During this time, the individual administering the Estate cannot begin to distribute any assets. Their job is solely to protect the assets contained within the Estate.
 
So, regardless of whether or not a Caveat has been registered with the Probate Registry in an attempt to halt the process, the deceased’s Estate will continue to be administered with outstanding bills being paid and daily tasks being carried out as normal, until the probate dispute has been resolved.

Contentious probate – when a Will is contested

Complicated family structures can result in an undignified battle when it comes to the delicate matter of inheritance; as seen recently in the media, when the partner of a millionaire spent six years in legal dispute with the children of her former boyfriend.
 
Ramadan Guney, who owned the UK’s largest cemetery, had six grown up children, then fathered another child with his new partner.
 
On his death, Mr Guney left a £28 million fortune which was then fought over by the six children and Mr Guney’s partner, who wanted to claim “reasonable financial provision” against his Estate.
 
The battle became extremely ugly, with the children claiming their father had had a vasectomy 30 years previously and questioning the parentage of the other youngest son. In turn, Ms Holiday, Mr Gurney’s partner, claimed that the six siblings had tried to kill her. The situation became so bad that Mr Gurney’s grown up children claimed that their father had in fact been murdered, and had his body exhumed.
 
Finally, despite the outlandish claims from both sides, the Court agreed with Ms Holiday and awarded her £60,000 per year from the Estate, along with the cemetery, valued between £700,000 and £1.2 million.
 
Prevent any bad blood occurring between your family members by not only keeping your Will updated but by maintaining a memorandum, which will explain your wishes and reasons behind the content of your Will.

Probate Dispute Over Inheritance

Another sad probate dispute was reported in the press recently.
 
This one focused on the deceased owner of Corby Castle, Sir John Howard-Lawson and his businessman son.
 
The castle was sold in 1990, but the surviving son, Mr Howard, claimed that his father was not legal owner of the castle at that time and so he felt that he should be entitled to receive £1.5 million from the proceeds of the sale.
 
It appears that Sir Howard-Lawson’s own great grandfather had inserted a “name and arms” clause into his Will which stated that to inherit the castle, his descendants should adopt the Howard surname and coat of arms. 
 
The son felt that his father had not complied with these terms, but the case was rejected by the Court, who was satisfied that Sir Howard-Lawson had indeed complied with the terms before the sale had taken place.

Law Firm Probate Fraud

Having read an article recently about a former legal executive from an East Sussex law firm, I was astounded to read that despite being placed in charge of Will writing and probate, she had absolutely no formal legal training.

Leanne Harris of Arscotts Solicitors in Hove went on to commit probate fraud; stealing almost £500,000 from clients.  It is reported, that this was to maintain a lifestyle many of us can only dream of.

Mrs Harris made transactions between clients’ accounts and wrote several false cheques to obtain the money. She also took advantage of one client, for whom she had been given power of attorney, taking almost £65,000 from the woman.

This case continues to highlight the need for the Will writing industry to be regulated – a move which is absolutely supported by IWC Ltd. Currently, the industry is self-regulated but it is highly unlikely that Mrs Harris would ever have been accepted within any of the industry bodies without having had any formal training.

This is a lesson to all of us – when looking for a Will writing and probate expert, always check that they are a member of an appropriate organisation.

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