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Disputed Will – Sisters say wealthier brother should inherit less than them

Just how complicated things can get when there is a breakdown in family communication has been highlighted by one of the latest inheritance disputes to reach the High Court.

Sisters Jennifer Penny and Catherine Kennard have asked a judge to rule in favour of an earlier Will that left them 40 per cent each of their mother’s £1.5 million estate and their brother, Chris, just 20 per cent.

They say the last Will made several years later, and which divides Freda Burgess’ estate equally between her three children, is invalid because not only was she too frail to understand what she was signing because of a fall, but there had also been ‘a lack of family-wide discussion’ about its contents both before and after it was made.

Final wishes

It is the earlier Will, they contend, that should be regarded as representative of their mother’s final wishes.

Not surprisingly, their brother, Chris Burgess – who his sisters’ say should inherit less than them because he is wealthier – is contesting their claim, resulting in a bitter legal battle which, with the judge reserving her decision, still has some way to run.

Background

Freda Burgess died in 2016, four years after her husband, Jim Burgess. Together, they had signed a Will in April 2012 dividing their estate so that Chris got the lesser 20 per cent share.

Accompanying this Will was a statement from Jim Burgess which read: “I am delighted that by reason of his own endeavours, the circumstances of my son are much improved to those which pertained in earlier years so that I felt I could benefit his sisters somewhat more.”

In January 2013, Freda made another Will in which she gave all her children an equal share of her estate. 

But this Will, say the sisters’ barrister, had not been properly witnessed and the judge ‘should not be satisfied that Freda knew and approved the contents of the 2013 Will.’ They also allege their mother did not have independent advice.

‘Palpably honest and generous’

On the other hand, Chris Burgess’ barrister described him as a ‘palpably honest and generous individual who did his upmost to provide his mother with comfort and support when she needed it.’

He told the court that there had never been any question of Mr Burgess suggesting his mother change her Will and that, despite the shock of the fall, she had remained a determined and independent-minded woman who knew exactly what she was doing until the end.

Judge Catherine Newman, who heard the case, has reserved her decision. This means she will take time to review evidence and the law and will deliver her decision at a later time, probably in a written form.

Contested Wills on the rise

The number of people contesting a Will and falling out over inheritance has increased dramatically in recent years.

Last year, 368 inheritance disputes were heard in the High Court compared to 282 cases in 2017 and 227 in 2016.

Tip of iceberg

And these figures probably only show the tip of the iceberg as they don’t take into account disputes settled prior to any court action or those brought in the county court, the first port of call for most contentious probate cases.

But there’s no doubt, the issue of contesting a Will is one being considered by a growing number of people.

In fact, every month more than 13,500 people use the internet to search for terms relating to the subject and the number going ahead with a claim is on the rise.

Specific help and guidance

Bearing in mind the number of people wanting to know more about contesting a Will, we have prepared three specific legal guides to help:

  1. What are the grounds for contesting a Will?
  2. Who can contest a Will?
  3. How to contest a Will.

Time is of the essence

It’s important to remember that if you think you do have a reason to make a claim you should take legal advice as soon as possible for a number of key reasons:

  • In relation to some grounds for bringing a claim against an estate, there is a strict time limit of six months to make a claim from the date the Grant of Probate was obtained;
  • You may have several grounds to make a claim and some may have a higher chance of success than others or may be easier to prove. A solicitor can help you identify these;
  • You may need to take preventative legal action to maximise your chances of success. For example, you may need a solicitor to apply for a ‘caveat’ which prevents the assets of the estate being distributed until the dispute is settled.

For help and advice about contesting a Will, please contact Wards Solicitors’ dedicated Probate Disputes team.

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