10 August 2023

Inheritance disputes between siblings

By Susanna Mayfield, Associate Solicitor, Hayes + Storr.

Losing a parent is never easy, and things can become even more distressing if quarrels arise between siblings about who should get what from their respective parents’ estates.
This article highlights some of the main causes of inheritance disputes between siblings and explains how best such arguments can be avoided and resolved.

Dying intestate

It is very important to leave a will and keep it under regular review as circumstances change, not least because if someone dies without leaving a Will, their estate will be distributed according to the strict intestacy rules under the Administration of Estates Act 1925. Which relatives of the deceased are living at the time of death will determine how the estate is distributed in accordance with those rules. It is not always a straightforward exercise to determine the extent of a deceased persons surviving family.

Current intestacy rules dictate that the spouse of the deceased person will receive all personal property, the first £322,000 of assets, and half of the remainder of the estate. Anything remaining after the spouse has taken their entitlement, will be shared equally between their children, irrespective of the wishes of the deceased person, which means that even estranged children will receive an equal benefit.

If the deceased was not married, the entire estate is shared equally between their children. This could cause sibling resentment; for example, if a child who was estranged from their parent receives the same amount as a sibling who cared for the parent and expected to inherit more.

If the parent was unmarried and without children, any surviving parents will benefit in the first instance. The categories of relatives who inherit, become progressively more remote thereafter.

Different amounts left to different siblings

A common cause of inheritance disputes between siblings is where a parent leaves one sibling more than the other or disinherits a child (adopted or stepchild in some cases) altogether.

The English legal system is often hailed for allowing everyone to leave their estate to whomever they please in their will. However, if someone is financially dependent on the deceased individual and is not otherwise left sufficient or any benefit by their will, the court can order that their estate be required make reasonable financial provision for the claimant under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975; irrespective and sometimes contrary to their wishes.

In addition, if a sibling has been promised an interest or a larger share of the estate but this was not actually reflected in a parent’s Will, they may be able to make a claim for proprietary estoppel subject to a number of conditions.

Will validity

If someone is unhappy with the share they have been left in a Will (if they have been left anything) particularly compared to another sibling, and they are suspicious about that treatment, then they may consider a challenge to the will on a number of potential grounds including:

  • Incorrect execution
  • Lack of testamentary capacity
  • Want of knowledge or approval
  • Duress, coercion, or undue influence.

A sibling may, for example, claim that their brother or sister put undue pressure on the parent to draft the will in their favour. Or they may claim that the testator was not mentally capable of understanding the nature of their estate or determining how it should be distributed.

Mirror Wills

Many married couples draw up mirror Wills, leaving their respective estates to each other on first death. Problems can arise with such wills particularly in blended families where there are children from previous relationships.

Such problems could be avoided if married couples make mirror wills which make provision for both individuals’ children on the death of the surviving spouse. However, it is important to note that a surviving spouse could later change their Will to benefit their children alone, particularly if their or their children’s financial circumstances change in later years.

The surviving spouse is perfectly entitled to do this which inevitably causes friction between stepsiblings as the children of the first parent to die may receive nothing.

Such stepsibling disputes may be averted if an individual creates a bespoke will which is tailored to account for this situation. Our private client solicitors can assist with the drafting of bespoke wills.

Dispute resolution

Where a sibling wants to contest a will, going to court should not be the first or only option, given the amount of time, money, and possible adverse publicity such a course of action can attract.
Alternative dispute resolution methods which are usually less costly and time-consuming than court include without prejudice negotiations and mediation. They can also be a less confrontational means of settling a dispute and afford the warring siblings privacy to explore the scope for any potential settlement.

Mediation sees an independent neutral third-party meeting with the disputing parties (mainly separately, but together if desired) with a view to attempting to broker a deal between them. The mediator cannot advise or force a solution; they simply facilitate an explorative discussion as objectively as possible. The matter will only be resolved at mediation if terms are agreed by the disputing parties.

How a solicitor can help

Our team of dispute resolution solicitors advise on all sorts of inheritance disputes, including those between siblings. They can outline all the grounds for a possible will challenge, suggest the most appropriate form of alternative dispute resolution and, if the case has to go to court, they can collate the appropriate evidence, provide legal advice and guidance throughout the court process.

For further information, please contact Susanna Mayfield in the dispute resolution team on 01328 863231 or email susanna.mayfield@hayes-storr.com.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.