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1 in 3 people 'purposefully' left out of a will: 1 in 5 don't know they can dispute a will in court

21 January, 2016

1 in 3 people graphic
Learning the contents of a loved one’s will is an experience that almost all of us will come to at some point in our lives, and it appears for many people this can lead to feelings of resentment due to unfair distribution, ultimately causing severe family disputes.

We at First4lawyers surveyed just over 1,000 people about their experiences of wills and their own plans for financial distribution after death, and, shockingly, more than one in three people reported they have been ‘purposefully’ left out of a will.

In 30% of unfair wills, it was found that the eldest child received the most inheritance. However, other cases show that parents left their inheritance to charity or even friends outside of the family circle. 

Given such a high rate of alleged unfair treatment, we explored how people have reacted to situations like this, and what they can do should a similar event occur in future.

Unfair distribution

Of the people we surveyed regarding wills and whether they had any cause for dispute over them, a high 33% said they considered themselves to have – at some point – been a victim of an unfair will. In one in three cases, the eldest child received the biggest share of the inheritance, and more than one in three people had been left out altogether.  

Relying on inheritance graphic

In 74% of cases, people had expected a certain amount to be inherited following conversations with the deceased, and then found that the will contained something very different. 

21% of the people we surveyed admitted to lying to loved ones about what is in their will, suggesting this problem is relatively frequent. 

In fact, lying about what your will is going to include starts remarkably early: people as young as 18–24 have already lied to loved ones about what is going in their will. Indeed, 15% of our respondents aged 18–24 admitted to this. In contrast, every respondent aged 65+ claimed to have been completely honest about the contents of their will. 

Such treatment has led 73% of people who have been victims of an unfair will to resolve to take care of their financial plans long before they die in order to prevent this kind of situation from occurring again.

Making a claim

Interestingly, 43% of victims of an unfair will said they didn’t even know they could dispute a will and take it to court. 18–24-year-olds were especially unaware that you could take a will to court: 70% did not know that legal action could be taken.

32% of unfair wills are taken to court and a staggering 80% of cases are successful – which prompts the question, would more people take action if they knew the chances of success were so high?
Why don’t more people take action?

Court graphic

Although 33% of our respondents claimed to have suffered as a result of an unfair will, 68% of those people did not take their case to court. For those who knew that this was an option, there must have been a reason for this decision. But what?

It seems 44% said they wouldn’t dispute a will in court, with many of them stating this is because taking legal action in these situations would be ‘distasteful’. 

A huge 90% of 65+ year olds said they wouldn’t even bother taking a will to court even if they were left out of it. One respondent said they would only take a claim to court if they were owed £1m – for anything less, they wouldn’t bother.

Not everyone has this concern, however. Another respondent showed quite a different attitude towards making a claim – saying that any dispute over a will was worth taking to court, even if they were only entitled to £10.

Unresolved issues

For many families, an unfair will can cause an irreparable rift. Although 75% of our respondents said that they do not believe their will is going to cause a family dispute, the fact that one in three people claim to have been victim of an unfair will demonstrates that financial distribution is not always as even as people think.

Some 31% said they would leave money to charity in order to avoid family disputes, indicating the fear of disagreements is a huge factor in people’s decisions regarding their wills. 

Of the 33% who have fallen victim to unfair wills, 49% of them said this has caused them to stop talking to some of their family members. This is a higher number than those who took their claim to court, which suggests people are more willing to see their family relationships sustain permanent damage than to take legal action.

This begs the question, could seeking legal advice enable the resolution of these issues, helping families to reach an agreement regarding the will rather than find their relationships broken down irretrievably?

Learning the contents of a loved one’s will can be troubling, and a huge number of people suffer added stress as a result of what they believe to be unfair distribution. 

Despite this, the number of people who make a claim is surprisingly low, whether because they do not know this is an option, or because they feel it inappropriate to seek legal help. Either way, such issues continue to cause disruption to families around the UK, sometimes leading to permanent damage.

If you are seeking help or advice regarding a will that you believe is unfair, First4lawyers can help. We offer a Wills Probate and Estate Planning service that provides access to expert solicitors for your case.