Attempts to block probate rose to a record level in England and Wales last year, following a surge in the value of bequeathed property and the use of less reliable do-it-yourself wills during the pandemic.
Challenges to the distribution of inherited estates jumped to 9,926 in England and Wales’s courts and tribunals service centres in 2021, up 37 per cent compared with 2019, according to figures revealed in a response to a freedom of information request made by law firm Nockolds.
“People are becoming more litigious when it comes to wills. Those who might have accepted being left out of a will 10 years ago may now be more likely to challenge it,” said Fiona Smith, partner in the private client team at law firm Forsters.
Experts say several factors have driven a surge in people blocking probate — the process in England and Wales of validating a will and confirming who has the right to manage a deceased person’s estate.
Daniel Winter, partner at Nockolds, points to a boom in the value of estates boosting the incentive for costly legal challenges. “The overheating property market, which has seen house prices rise at their fastest rate in 18 years [in June], is making disputes over estates increasingly worthwhile,” he said.
A rise in DIY wills drawn up in a hurry over lockdown is also likely to have boosted probate disputes, according to Winter, as these are more likely to contain omissions and errors and be open to interpretation.
“Anyone who made an ‘emergency DIY will’ during the lockdown should consider reviewing it now, with the benefit of legal advice, to avoid costly disputes in the family,” said Kay Ingram, a chartered financial planner.
More than half (56 per cent) of UK adults do not have a valid will, rising to 79 per cent for those aged 18 to 34, according to research by insurer Royal London in September 2021. Of those who had wills, about 30 per cent had not reviewed them for at least five years.
Smith said some family members may dispute a will for the “nuisance factor” — in the hope that beneficiaries might give them some money to go away.
Tim Snaith, partner at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, said intestacy rules, which govern the distribution of an estate when someone dies without a will, do not make any provision for a surviving cohabiting partner, which invariably leads to a claim being threatened or raised.
Most attempts to block probate — known as caveats — are made by family members suspicious about the latest version of the deceased person’s will.
Winter said the usual grounds for a caveat included insufficient mental capacity of the person who has died, their being subject to undue influence by someone else, or the deceased not fully understanding what was in the will.
Most other applications to drop probate, Winter added, are by beneficiaries who question the suitability of one or more of the executors named in the will.
While the number of caveats fell between 2018 and 2019, figures last year show a 28 per cent rise over the past five years. Snaith expects this to continue as a “massive generational transition of wealth” from baby boomers to younger generations gathers pace.