Legacy has gone wrong is a popular theme in fiction. In the recent German miniseries The Funeral, the one-sided will of the family’s father suspends the entire ceremony, and the long-running feud at the grave is broadcast.
In our research, we tried to understand why families go to court to fight inheritance. We have seen an increase in the number of inheritance disputes reported annually since 1985. Using the Digital Case Report Database, we have selected 32 court cases that occurred in England in 2014 that provide detailed insights into contemporary family life, for closer analysis.
Here are four reasons why families may go to court to challenge a will – and how to avoid a court battle.
If there is anything to fight, the family goes to court. This graph shows the amount of risk in the case we have seen.
Small inheritance disputes are more likely to be settled out of court. If you have enough resources to make a will, inheritance planning becomes extremely important.
Own a business
Physical resources are extremely difficult to share and distribute among family members. This makes the family home will a difficult issue, especially if a child continues to live in the family home. If the home is shared between siblings, the child living in the family home will be asked to take a mortgage to pay their siblings.
This is worse, however, for the physical resources associated with a functioning business, such as agricultural land. Usually, people aim to protect the family business by handing it over to an heir. Problems can arise, however, if a family member is promised an inheritance or is given a “verbal indication” that they will receive it – and probably do business in anticipation of it – and then be kept out of the will.
A promise can be enforced in English law, however, so an heir may have a very strong legal basis for claiming the right to this promised property in court. This is especially true if they have worked in the past in the hope of fulfilling this promise, such as reforming or reforming.
Most of the conflicts we have found in our research have occurred among members of the same generation. Sibling rivalry and violence is a major reason for going to court over an estate. This graph shows the relationship between the parties in the case we studied.
More siblings and a large extended family makes it difficult to find common ground about the fair share of wealth.
Inheritance of divorce
Conflicts between ex-partners can lead to court battles between children and surviving parents.
We have studied the arrears of tax on a deceased mother and her pension. She had her pension assets in her ex-husband’s business, but transferred them before her death to make sure they were given to her children, not to her ex-husband. It is an example of how unresolved divorce conflicts can drive children away even after their parents die.
How to avoid conflict
Inheritance provides a way to maintain social status or to climb the ladder of property. Drawing from the example of our court case, families should follow a few simple rules. Open and honest communication is essential. Talking openly about death is forbidden in many cultures, but communicating your motives and expectations during your lifetime will reduce the chances of stress and unwanted surprises for your loved ones.
Keeping your promises is important. In other words, don’t change your will at the last minute on your deathbed – it can easily be challenged in court.
And finally, children who are afraid of being left out should engage in constructive, non-violent conversations throughout their parents’ lives. It is important to create such mutual expectations over a lifetime. Subsequently, the families were left with only the judges as arbitrators.
Stefan CopeAssistant Professor of Social Policy, University College Dublin
This article has been republished from Conversations under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.