It is now easier for estranged relatives to weasel out a chunk of cash from a dead family member’s will following a major court ruling and a rise in dodgy cut-price online services, lawyers are warning.
A judge’s decision earlier this year to award unemployed Heather Illot at least £50,000 from her late, estranged mother’s will, despite the whole £500,000 estate being left to charity, has given ‘increased legal weight’ to challenges.
Jane Lee, a partner at law firm Panonne, says the ruling, which has now been rubber-stumped by the Supreme Court, could see a rise in people dying without a will, with one in seven already passing away intestate.
The unregulated will-writing industry also faces an investigation over dodgy practice, further undermining fragile confidence among Britons.
In July, the legal ombudsman said one in five wills were failed by experts in a damning ‘mystery shop’ exposing flaws in the industry.
It warned that poor quality wills, sharp sales practices and untrustworthy ‘flash firms’ that take money for a service and disappear without a trace were leaving families exposed.
Ms Lee, an experienced lawyer, says: ‘People generally believe that the terms of a will are binding and cannot be contested. However, what we have seen in recent years is a rise in challenges, partly due to economic pressure caused by the recession and the changing structure of British families.
‘What the Ilott decision has done is give increased legal weight to challenges by adult children who it was thought were not in a strong position to dispute a will. This does little to inspire confidence in those who may already question the need to make a will.
‘Rather than avoiding difficulty and dispute, not making a will may result in more disagreement about who gets what as well as potentially increasing the amount of the estate swallowed up by inheritance tax.’
The Illot case made the national newspapers in April. Heather Ilott, 50, fell out with her mother Melita Jackson after running away at 17 to live with her boyfriend.
Ms Jackson had left explicit instructions in her will that her daughter should not receive an inheritance because the pair had hardly spoken in 25 years. Instead, she left the entire £486,000 to The Blue Cross, RSPCA and RSPB when she died aged 70 in 2004.
Mrs Ilott challenged the will claiming ‘reasonable provision’ from her mother’s estate and was initially awarded £50,000 before the decision was overturned at the High Court, only for the Appeals Court to over-rule again. The Supreme Court has ratified the decision and refused the charities permission to appeal again.
Alongside this, a statutory investigation into will writing, probate and estate administration markets was launched in July by the Legal Services Board following a damaging mystery shop by the Legal Services Consumer Panel.
Dr Dianne Hayter, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, said she was ‘shocked’ by the findings and urged for the industry to be regulated.
‘A will may have huge personal and financial consequences for those who we care about most,’ she said.
‘The Panel was shocked by the poor quality of wills in the mystery shopping. Although the sample was small, will-writing companies and solicitors were equally culpable, pointing to the need for tighter controls across the sector.
‘Only by requiring all providers to be regulated and to demonstrate their competence can consumers enjoy peace of mind that their final wishes will be respected whoever prepares their will.’
‘Easier’ for relatives to weasel cash from wills after rise in challenges and flawed documents
September 23, 2011