No matter if you are rich or poor; a big family or small family; close or estranged; inheritance disputes can happen. Whilst often about money, they can rise over anything; who keeps the family dog; who looks after the children; who gets to keep the sentimental chess board that grandad always used with you as a child.
There are several reasons a dispute arises, and they are often due to a failure of intentionality, perceived inequality or wrongful acts.
Failure of intentionality is where a person feels they have been left out of the will by accident. They may have been told by the deceased they will be left something in the will, or they feel the executor has not understood their intention.
Perceived inequality is where a person feels they should be entitled to more than they have been left with. This can often happen with children who are left an equal share, but one child has spent a long time caring for their parent or one had borrowed money and it is not considered when deciding the share. These result in other siblings feeling left out.
Wrongful acts usually refer to a discovery of financial irregularities. This can be the discovery of money being taken from the deceased’s bank account in their final few months/years or an executor abusing their fiduciary duties.
What to do if a Dispute Arises
If you are unhappy, as a beneficiary, there are several options you can take. You can start legal action, or you can seek mediation. However, the best solution is to ensure the dispute never arises.
Taking preventative action is the best way to deal with disputes, as it can ensure they never happen. This requires keeping your estate planning up to date, making changes as and when they are needed. It requires communication between yourself and beneficiaries, ensuring they know what the will contains and are clear about what they do and do no inherit. This can avoid argument about what you really wished each person to get. Additionally, simply being aware of the dynamics of your family and giving that information to your executor can ensure a tightly drafted will. It can help avoid sibling rivalries being the cause of dispute over ambiguous wording.
However, if a dispute does arise, then the first option people seek is legal action. In order for someone to be able to do this, they must be a beneficiary, creditor or legal claimant against the estate. This will include people who would have a claim against the estate if the will was deemed invalid or did not exist. There may have been an intention by the deceased to intentionally leave a specific person out of the will, but if the wording is not clear, then that person will be able to bring action.
The other option, which can be more effective and less costly, is to seek mediation. This will involve a trained mediator working with all parties to come to an agreement about what should happen. It is not compulsory and will not be binding unless all parties agree; so, there are no disadvantages of attempting it. Parties can also bring legal advisors to the mediation with them. Mediation can help with small disputes but might not be ideal where there are multiple claims or a very large and complex estate.
The advantage of mediation is that it can help preserve relationships between family members and friends. It can prevent long, drawn out litigation which can be expensive and in which there are no guarantees of success.