Battle of the beneficiaries

19 April 2016

The much publicised war of words and threat of an inheritance dispute brewing between Lynda Bellingham’s adult sons and her third (surviving) husband Michael Pattemore is all too familiar. We have seen a steady increase in fall-outs over wills in part as a consequence of families becoming more complicated and in particular, disgruntled children who are unhappy with their provision or treatment at the hands of a step-parent.

We know Bellingham left the entirety of her estate to her widower. He says her will is still going through probate. We do not yet know on what basis her sons want to challenge her will, if indeed they will do so formally, but there are typically five grounds on which inheritance claims can be based.

The validity of a will can be contested where:

  • The will has not been correctly executed;
  • The person who made the will can be shown to have lacked the necessary mental capacity;
  • The person who made the will lacked knowledge or approval of the contents of their will;
  • The person who made the will was subject to undue influence;
  • The will is forged/fraudulent.

The merits of these types of claims depend largely on the contemporaneous evidence from when the will was made, such as medical records or the solicitor's will file.

Further if an individual does not consider that they have been sufficiently provided for (if at all) they may be able to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 for reasonable provision (including adult children who are entitled to apply for reasonable financial provision from the estate of a deceased parent).

Claims of this nature can be protracted, expensive and emotionally distressing for all concerned. Claims rarely begin with the issue of proceedings (and most commonly initially involve correspondence between the parties and/or their lawyers) but if a claim is to be made it often needs to be done quickly. For example, any claim under the 1975 Act must be made within six months of the grant of probate. Likewise, urgent action may be required to preserve assets, whilst claims are under consideration. In all cases, alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, should be considered in order to seek to achieve a resolution out of court. Indeed, the vast majority of cases are settled before trial.

Unlike in other countries such as France, we do not have forced heirship rules, which means that there is no requirement for parents to leave assets to their children.  In the recent case of Heather Illot (whose mother chose to leave money to charity rather than to her estranged adult daughter) the judge that ruled that the daughter was entitled to some provision but it was fact specific and very much on a financial needs basis.

Testamentary freedom remains an important principle to the English Courts and inheritance claims by adult children are by no means straightforward. Most observers hope that the tensions between Lynda Bellingham’s sons and her widower can be smoothed once her will is properly processed and probate is granted. Otherwise, her reputation for family togetherness will be a tarnished legacy.

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