13 March 2024

Inheritance disputes on the rise

Woman signing Will

The number of family fallouts over inheritance has been climbing over recent years, including those going to the High Court of England and Wales.

Recent statistics indicate that the Chancery Division of the High Court in London alone dealt with 75 cases of “disputed probate”, this figure increasing to 105 in 2021 and increasing again in 2022 to 117 cases. In addition to these cases, the court also heard 165 “Inheritance Act” claims in 2021 and 195 in 2022.

However, this is only the beginning as specialists estimate that there are as many as a staggering 10,000 cases of such disputes each year. Fortunately, the majority of these cases are being resolved out of the courtroom, though still emotionally traumatic for many of those involved.

Common types of disputes in this area


Common grounds for disputing the validity of a Will are that the person making it lacked the requisite mental capacity at the time of making the Will and did not understand the extent of what they were giving away, and/or that the person making it acted under undue influence from another person.

Proprietary Estoppel

Whereby a representation or assurance had been made to the claimant, which the claimant reasonably relied on and suffered a detriment because of this reliance.

Claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975

Whereby a claimant can claim against the estate of someone who failed to make reasonable financial provision for the claimant in their Will (or lack of Will).

Fun illustration

There are a number of reasons for the substantial increase in inheritance disputes. It has been said that the surge has been driven by longer life expectancies with ever-growing pools of assets, increasing the inheritance at steak for the descendants, coupled with rising cases of dementia leading to more people disputing the validity of Wills. Legal experts also warn of not only opportunistic partners looking to take advantage of the vulnerable, but even of professional caregivers doing the same.

The High Court saw the interesting case of Gowing and Others v Ward and Another in February 2024, involving an estate worth around £500,000 of the late Frederick Ward Snr, whereby two grandchildren of the deceased were left only £50 each. The grandchildren claimed that their aunt and uncle had coerced their grandfather into making his Will in this way and that they had exerted undue influence on him. The court, however, heard that the grandfather had been “hurt” because the grandchildren had not been to visit him more often. The court ruled that the grandfather was entitled to leave his estate as he did, stating that it was "entirely rational".

Undue influence claims are particularly difficult to succeed with due to there often being a lack of hard evidence. By contrast to the previous case, however, June 2023 saw a rare successful claim of undue influence in Jones v Jones. Here, the judge in the case found that the Will was the product of undue influence, whilst acknowledging that there was no direct evidence that the deceased had signed her Will because of undue influence. The court also rightly noted that is often the case in such claims.

The court was required to look at the circumstantial evidence of the case and took into account a number of factors including that the deceased was still grieving over the death of her own daughter at the time she made the Will, and that the Will was made without the involvement of a solicitor or an up-to-date medical assessment. In applying the “balance of probabilities” test, the court, despite the lack of direct evidence, was satisfied in setting aside the will, stating that it was “the only conclusion” it could reach in light of all of the circumstances.

Whilst such conversations can be difficult, it is advisable for families to have pre-emptive conversations about asset division and to make clear last wishes, to prevent future challenges from arising and maintain harmony.

If you are currently involved in an inheritance dispute or worried about one arising, please contact our team of expert contentious probate solicitors.

Katherine Marshall, Wilkin Chapman LLP
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