When a loved one passes away, the emotional journey is often complex and compounded by legal processes. In the UK, contentious probate is an unfortunate reality for many, with 3 in 4 people likely to experience a will, inheritance, or probate dispute in their lifetime.

The Reality of Contested Wills

Contested wills occur when beneficiaries, or those who believe they should be beneficiaries, disagree with the will’s contents or its validity.

These disputes can stem from various issues, such as perceived unfairness in the will’s terms, questions about the deceased’s mental capacity at the time of the will’s creation, or the belief that the deceased was unduly influenced by someone else.

The Why and How of Will Contestation

The factors leading to a will being contested are as varied as the individuals involved. Inheritance disputes among siblings are the most common, often due to unequal distribution or the feeling that one sibling had undue influence over the parent.

Understanding these triggers can help mitigate potential disputes and inform better estate planning.

The Probate Process Explained

Probate is the legal procedure for managing the deceased’s estate, from verifying the will’s authenticity to distributing the assets. Between July 2018 and March 2023, the UK’s probate service issued over a million grants of probate. This high volume reflects the necessity of the probate process in estate management.

Step-by-Step Guide Through Contested Probate

  1. Verification of the Will: To mitigate disputes, the will’s authenticity must be verified first.
  2. Grant of Probate: Executors must obtain a Grant of Probate to have the authority to manage the estate.
  3. Estate Valuation: Proper valuation is critical, as mis-valuation can lead to disputes.
  4. Paying Inheritance Tax: The estate must pay any due inheritance tax before distribution.
  5. Debt Settlement: Any outstanding debts of the estate need to be settled; a common dispute point given that almost 40% of people die with debts.
  6. Distribution: Distribution can be delayed if the will is contested, necessitating mediation or court intervention.

The Psychological Impact of Contested Wills

The emotional toll of a contested will can be significant, with family relationships often strained or broken in the aftermath. The stress of legal proceedings, along with grief, can lead to lasting psychological effects.

Support from professionals such as solicitors and counsellors can be essential during this time, providing not just legal but also emotional guidance.

Executors and Administrators – Navigating Challenges

Executors and administrators have the critical task of managing the estate according to the will’s directives. They must ensure that all debts are paid, taxes are settled, and assets are distributed fairly. However, when a will is contested, their role becomes more complex, often requiring them to make difficult decisions while balancing the interests of all parties involved. Sometimes though, an executor may not always do this.

Legal Options and Support

For those involved in a contested will, options include mediation, court proceedings, and settlement. Legal advice is crucial here, and solicitors play a vital role in probate disputes.

The Importance of Estate Planning

Effective estate planning can significantly reduce the chances of a will being contested. By clearly documenting one’s wishes and discussing them with potential beneficiaries, many disputes can be pre-empted.

Regular updates to the will to reflect changes in circumstances or relationships are also crucial to prevent misunderstandings and ensure that the will reflects the latest intentions of the deceased.

Common Misconceptions

“Only spouses and children can contest wills”: In fact, anyone with a legitimate interest can challenge a will.

“A will is final”: Wills can be contested and overturned if compelling reasons are provided.

The Financial and Emotional Toll

The impact of contested wills is not just financial; the emotional strain can lead to family rifts, with inheritance disputes among siblings being the most common form.

Trends in Probate and Estate Planning

There has been a notable shift toward digital applications in probate proceedings, with 87% of applications made digitally. This trend is making the process more efficient, with probate grants taking approximately 7 weeks to issue, but it also raises new considerations for estate planning and management, such as digital asset management and online will storage.

Conclusion: Moving Forward with Compassion and Care

Navigating contested wills and the probate process is a delicate matter that requires legal knowledge, emotional intelligence, and patience. With 87% of probate applications now made digitally, and probate grants taking approximately 7 weeks to issue, the process is becoming more efficient. However, disputes can extend this timeframe significantly.

As you face these complex situations, remember to honour the wishes of your loved ones while ensuring fairness for all involved. With the correct approach, you can navigate through contested wills and probate with resolution and peace.