Fighting over an inheritance can happen to anybody, especially siblings. Unfortunately, sibling disputes are the most common causes of will disputes. In the U.K., three siblings fought so bitterly over their mother’s modest estate of £120 000 that by the time the lawsuit was finalised in the Court of Appeal the estate had been completely spent on legal fees, leaving the three siblings with nothing. It seems unbelievable to outsiders that this could happen, but in truth, sibling rivalry over their inheritance is one of the most common reasons for an estate battle.
No matter how close the relationship between siblings, often the death of the last remaining parent can cause a bitter fight over their inheritance. Siblings of all ages, professions and social demographics can find themselves at war with each other over their parents’ will. These disputes may end up in court, where a judge must interpret the will and make a decision about how the inheritance ought to be split.
Why Do Siblings Fight Over an Inheritance?
There are several common reasons why siblings might enter into litigation over their parent’s estate:
- The parents have treated their children unequally in the will. Any perception of injustice may lead to litigation. A court will take into account the financial and emotional wellbeing of the children when making its decision. It’s important to remember that allowing a court to make this decision may lead to an outcome that is vastly different to the original intention of the will.
- One sibling has is responsible for taking care of an ailing parent while another sibling remains distant. If one sibling makes significant sacrifices to care for the parent, he or she may feel entitled to a greater share of the estate.
- Conversely the distant sibling feels that the caretaker sibling is taking advantage of the parent. Often the caretaker sibling has access to or knowledge of the parent’s financial circumstances. A suspicion of fraud or abuse can lead to litigation.
- One sibling has been appoint executor of the will and there are fears or resentments among other siblings that the estate will not be administered appropriately.
- The parents die without a will.
Alternatively, one sibling can feel as if the other sibling has meddled with the parent’s will. In the case of Peter Howes, he let jealousy get in the way of fairness. While he was left in charge of his father’s will and carrying out his wishes, he utterly betrayed that trust. He meddled with the estate and transferred parts of his brother’s inheritance into his own hands by forging signatures. It wasn’t until after the mother died that solicitors realised what had been occurring, and Peter was sent to jail for four years. Unfortunately, cases like that occur, and that is only another reason as to why siblings argue.
Unfortunately, many children are holding out for their parent’s inheritance. This means that if they believe something is unfair, they are willing to solve the problem legally. This is not necessarily a negative thing, but estate battles can become quite a negative and unfair mess for many involved. Therefore, seeking ways for litigation to be avoided is key.
Can Litigation Be Avoided?
There are several things parents can do to minimise the risk of litigation over their estate when they die:
- Make a will, and update it regularly. We recommend every five years or whenever there is a significant life event, such as the birth of a child or grandchild, a divorce or the acquisition or disposal of an asset.
- Treat their children fairly in their will. This does not always mean that the children will be treated equally. For example, if a family has a child with a disability, it is fair and right that that child receives a larger slice of the estate to ensure he or she is looked after adequately upon the death of the parents.
- Communicate clearly so that there are no surprises. Make sure everyone in the family is informed of the decisions made and why. It’s important to know that Queensland law recognises the rights of children (and stepchildren) tio be provided for adequately by a parent’s will.
Making a will can seem to be a simple process but you should always seek advice from a professional whenever you draft or update a will. Bryan Mitchell is an Accredited Specialist in Succession Law (Qld) and can offer expert advice. If you are worried your will may result in a battle, seek legal advice. Contact us at Estate Battles today.
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