How to avoid inheritance disputes

All parents identify with the need to protect their children. So why do so many of us overlook the things that can be done to protect our children and other loved ones after our deaths?  Recently the Central London County Court dealt with a dispute between the estranged wife and long-term partner of a deceased dentist who died suddenly from a heart attack.  He made no Will, and the house he had made his home with his partner of nearly 20 years, was owned by them as tenants in common. This meant his share of the house did not pass to his partner, but went to his estranged wife under the intestacy rules.  The court ultimately decided the deceased would have wanted his partner to have the house.  However, the estranged wife has been left with a significant costs bill of £100,000 which will impact her and the deceased’s daughter.  Surely this is not an outcome that he would have wanted for any of those involved.

Failure to act can have particularly acute consequences for unmarried couples who do not benefit from intestacy provisions. As illustrated above, they could be left battling others (possibly their own children) in the wake of their partner’s death.  Litigation is never pleasant or cheap – it is even more awful when bereaved. 

How can you protect your loved ones from such disputes?

  1. When you buy a property jointly with a partner, consider whether you want your partner to inherit the whole property on your death, or whether you want to leave your share to someone else. If the latter, make sure that you hold the property as tenants in common, not as joint tenants, so that the principle of survivorship does not override your wishes.
  2. Enter into a Cohabitation agreement with your partner.  Preparing that agreement will force you to consider what should happen on death. Better to talk about it and make your views known so people are not taken by surprise.  If you don’t want to leave your interest in a joint home to your partner, tell them what you do want and consider giving them breathing space after your death by agreeing that any house sale be deferred for a period.
  3. Make a Will and review and update it regularly as your life moves on. Provide clear instructions for the division of your estate and think about writing letters to explain your decisions to your loved ones.
  4. Ensure that your legal obligations are met. If you die whilst still are paying maintenance to an ex-spouse, they could make a claim against your estate if you have not properly provided for them. If they do, they will be litigating against your other beneficiaries for a share of your estate. Emotional financial arguments after bereavements can harm families irreparably.
  5. Deal with the basics such as the type of funeral you want.  The sad case of the Freud family illustrates why.  Siblings disagreed on their mother’s funeral arrangements. Neither backed down and they ended up in the High Court. They only compromised when told by the judge he would have to impose a third option in place of their choices.  Had their mother made her wishes known, all of that conflict and expense could have been avoided. No doubt she would have wished that for her children.

Most people don’t want to talk about what will happen after their death. Not many of us get a medical warning that it is time to get our affairs in order. However, not doing so can create untold misery for those we hold most dear.  It is never too early to think about these things.

By Nicola Harries, Partner
Article first published in Good Housekeeping, March 2016

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