Where there's a will...
Gareth Parry, Director at Hughes Paddison and expert in dealing with issues of contentious probate provides advice on dealing with disputes over wills.
It is 160 years since Charles Dickens warned of the perils of arguments about wills going to court in the fictional case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which featured in Bleak House.
A quick flick through this week’s newspapers suggests the lessons have not been learnt: there are tales of woe about children arguing over their inheritance, claims of beneficiaries’ faking wills and of crooked executors stealing from estates (sadly, Gloucestershire has had more than its fair share of those in recent times).
Disputes about wills can become time-consuming and costly. As well as the financial cost, there is often a huge emotional toll: families can be torn apart in a way that would leave the person who has died spinning in their grave.
Sometimes, the glue that binds families together seems to perish with the death of the family elders.
This begs the question, how can disputes be avoided? At a time when banks, financial advisers and others are flooding into the legal market (at the last count, there were over 130,000 unregulated providers of legal services to the public, many of whom write wills), the most effective way to combat disputes remains instructing proper experts in the field – suitably qualified solicitors.
But how do you find a good solicitor? Recommendation from someone who has used a solicitor is a good start. But an excellent way to load the odds in your favour is to look for the logo of Society of Trust & Estate Practitioners (“STEP”). STEP members (whether from the legal, accountancy or financial advice fields) have to pass rigorous tests in order to become STEP-qualified. They usually have a good awareness of the circumstances that can lead to disputes, and how best to avoid them. The Association of Contentious Trust & Probate Specialists (“ACTAPS”) is another good badge to look for when looking for help with a dispute that has already arisen.
Sometimes, despite an expert solicitor’s best efforts, disputes will arise. Beneficiaries may be dishonest, or perhaps intent on having an argument. Rather than running off to the nearest litigation specialist - a hired gun who might only serve to make things worse - it is a good idea to look out for those who have an empathy with what is required in this field.
Ask your solicitor what experience they have in dealing with matters and which side of the fence they come from – estate planning or litigation – before choosing whether to instruct them in a tricky wills dispute. There is no single guaranteed way to succeed in bringing cases to the right conclusion as quickly and cheaply as possible, but it is worth finding someone who will adopt the right approach.
Of course, in dreaming up Jarndyce v Jarndyce, Dickens was attacking a legal system which ceased to operate effectively and in which the costs outweighed the benefit to the litigants. With the correct legal representation, that need not be the case.
If you have questions about planning to avoid arguments in difficult estates, or if you need help in trying to sort out a will where there is an argument, contact Gareth Parry or his colleagues on 01242 574244