Probate is the legal process of administering the estate of a deceased person, ensuring that their assets are distributed according to their Will or, in the absence of a Will, in accordance with the laws of intestacy. While probate is typically a straightforward process, disputes can arise, leading to what is known as contentious probate. This article explores the concept of contentious probate, its causes, and the legal aspects surrounding such disputes.

What is Contentious Probate?

Contentious probate refers to a situation where disputes or disagreements arise during the administration of a deceased person’s estate. These disputes can involve various parties, including family members, beneficiaries, or creditors.

Common issues include:

  • challenges to the validity of the Will
  • disputes over the distribution of assets
  • allegations of undue influence or fraud
  • concerns about the lack of capacity when creating the Will

Most Common Claims Made:

At Thompson Smith and Puxon, we help clients with a wide range of disputes concerning an estate or the Will of someone who has passed away. Some of the most common types of claims made include:

Validity of the Will: Disputes often arise when there are concerns about the validity of the deceased person’s Will. This may include allegations of undue influence, fraud, duress, or lack of mental capacity when the will was created.

Family Disputes: Contentious probate can result from family disagreements over the distribution of assets. Families are becoming more and more complex, when people are re-married, separated or have blended families there can be more risk of complications or even oversights when making a Will. Sibling rivalries, stepfamily tensions, or disputes between spouses can complicate the probate process.

Failure to Provide: Disputes may arise if certain family members or dependents feel they have not been adequately provided for in the Will or under intestacy laws. This can lead to claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. Being either intentionally or unintentionally left out of someone’s Will can be very upsetting, especially if someone is financially dependent on their inheritance or feels that they were promised something whilst the person was alive.

Executor Disputes: Executors, who are responsible for administering the estate, may face challenges or disagreements from beneficiaries or other interested parties. This can be due to concerns about the executor’s competence, impartiality, or actions during the probate process. Dealing with a loved one’s estate can be a distressing time, especially when there are added tensions between executors and other parties.

Legal Proceedings in Contentious Probate:

Challenging the Will: Individuals wishing to challenge a Will should often firstly consider entering a caveat to prevent a Grant of Probate or Letters of Administration from being obtained.  The claimant may then contest a Will by filing a legal challenge in court. This often involves presenting evidence to support claims of undue influence, fraud, lack of capacity, or other grounds for challenging the validity of the Will. 

Inheritance Act Claims: In some jurisdictions, family members or dependents who believe they have not been adequately provided for can make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, seeking reasonable financial provision from the estate.

Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution: Before resorting to court proceedings, parties involved in contentious probate disputes may opt for mediation or alternative dispute resolution methods. These approaches aim to facilitate negotiations and reach a resolution outside of the courtroom.  The Courts have reiterated time and time again that Contentious Probate claims are ideally suited to Mediation and the parties will be expected to take reasonable steps to settle a claim.

Challenging a Will

Contentious Probate can significantly complicate the already challenging process of estate administration. Understanding the common causes of disputes and the legal avenues available for resolution is crucial. While court proceedings are an option, alternative dispute resolution methods can often provide a more efficient and amicable way to settle disagreements, preserving family relationships and reducing the emotional and financial toll on all parties involved.

Seeking legal advice early in the probate process can help prevent disputes or, if they arise, navigate them effectively being mindful of the very strict timeframes involved.

For more information or to discuss whether you have a Contentious Probate claim, please contact Katie Latham on 01206 217035.