Where there’s a will there’s a WAR!
PUBLISHED: 06:00, 15 January 2023 |
The Voice star Bo Bruce’s inheritance battle over her mother’s will and estate is just one of several high-profile cases to hit the headlines recently. And as Hattie Crisell discovers, these multimillion-pound family fallouts don’t affect just the rich and famous.
Catherine Brudenell-Bruce won an inheritance case against her brother in 2022
Their high-profile dispute and battle sparked intense public interest at the time
Meanwhile inheritance disputes in the UK hit an all-time high of 192 in 2020
Just under a year ago, Lady Catherine Brudenell-Bruce – better known to fans of TV talent show The Voice as singer Bo Bruce – won a decade-long inheritance case against her brother, Thomas James Brudenell-Bruce, Viscount Savernake.
The high-profile battle sparked intense public interest not least because it sounded like the plot of a Jane Austen novel. When Bo and Thomas’s mother Rosamond, the Countess of Cardigan, died in 2012, she left her Wiltshire estate, including her £2 million house, in equal shares.
The High Court heard, however, that ten years after her death, the viscount had not yet sold the house (which he lived in) and shared the inheritance with his sister, who was described in court as being ‘desperate for money’. The judge ordered the viscount be sacked as estate executor, saying he had ‘ignored his responsibilities’ to his sister with regards to the will.
The bitterness of this sibling dispute pales, however, beside a landmark case heard by a court in April 2022. In the last months of retired engineer Gerald Whittle’s life, his daughter Sonia had plenty to tell him about her brother David.
He and his wife were ‘criminals’ and ‘psychopaths’, she said; they’d stolen money from David’s mother-in-law. She told her dad that while he was in hospital, David had been looking for his bank details, and had helped himself to Gerald’s antiques and classic cars, and that David was a violent man who assaulted women.
Gerald was 92, suffering from leukemia and often confusion. These sinister tales got to him: he cut contact with his son and, three weeks before he died in 2016, executed a will that left his £1 million estate almost entirely to his daughter.
The judge ruled that the will was invalid because of ‘fraudulent calumny’: Sonia had poisoned her father’s mind. None of what she’d said about her brother and his wife was true. Those antiques that she claimed he’d stolen? She had sold them.
These events don’t surprise lawyer Richard Manyon of top London firm Payne Hicks Beach. ‘You would not believe the shenanigans that people get up to,’ he says. ‘Even wealthy people can behave in underhand ways just to get a benefit out of their parents’ estates.’
Inheritance disputes in the UK began rising in 2015, with the number of wills contested at the High Court reaching an all-time high of 192 in 2020. And this is just the tip of the iceberg – the majority of disputes are settled out of court. Three in four people are now likely to experience a will, inheritance or probate dispute, according to a study by legal firm IBB Law. Why so many rows?
There’s more to fight over: the number of inherited estates worth more than a million has increased by over a third in five years. HMRC received £6.1 billion in inheritance tax in 2021-22 – 14 per cent higher than the previous year.
That we’re living longer also causes problems. ‘More people are getting to that stage where dementia is likely, so they may be vulnerable or lacking in capacity,’ says Manyon. ‘The consequence is that there will be more dodgy wills.’ Families are increasingly blended, too: second marriages and half-siblings make it more complicated to split assets.
Many of Manyon’s cases involve adult children who are outraged that a stepmother has inherited most of their father’s estate. (It’s usually this way around, he confirms: ‘Mothers, in my experience, are more capable of not creating complicated situations.’)
It’s a dynamic that we’ve seen unfold dramatically in the news. When 77-year-old Monty Python actor Terry Jones died in 2020, he left the bulk of his multimillion-pound estate to his wife, Anna Söderström, 39, rather than his two adult children Sally, 48, and Bill, 46.
Their lawyer argued that he’d been suffering from dementia at the time of the will, and that emails from that period showed that Söderström didn’t ‘dare trust his judgment’ and said that he couldn’t ‘hold two thoughts at once’. The case has now been settled privately.
Often, though, what seems wrong to the children can be perceived differently in court. ‘The legal status of a spouse is powerful,’ says Manyon. ‘There’s a disconnect between some people’s moral understanding of what’s right and what the law allows for.’
When Jason, 52, lost his maternal grandfather, Arthur, he found himself in a situation that didn’t feel ‘right’. Arthur’s estate was worth around £3 million. In his will, he divvied up £50,000 among his three adult grandchildren and their kids, and left the remaining £2,950,000 to his second, much younger partner, Emily.
Egged on by family members, Jason asked Emily to divide the estate more evenly; she said no. ‘I was then under pressure from all sides to take action,’ he says. ‘So my cousin and I went to see a lawyer, and he said we had a rock-solid case.’
As it turned out, this was bad advice. ‘The legal fees started piling up. It was time-consuming and stressful,’ he recalls. ‘It reached a point where I was deep in the hole financially – I couldn’t bail out and lose what I had spent, and I couldn’t afford to go forward.’
As their moment in court approached, it became clear that Emily was going to win, leaving Jason and his cousin with crippling six-figure debts. ‘I nearly had a breakdown,’ he says.
At the last minute, miraculously, Emily offered a small settlement to avoid going to court. Jason still wonders whether she did this out of kindness, knowing the case would ruin him. ‘Was taking legal action worth it for me? No,’ he says. ‘She still got pretty much the lot, and the stress was unbelievable.’
Inheritance disputes can get expensive, fast. IBB Law’s survey put the average legal fees at £12,775. You might wonder why anybody bothers chasing their share, but the problem is that money isn’t just money.
As someone whose father died after four marriages puts it: ‘The will is the last thing your parent says to you, and it feels like the last evidence you have of who they loved and how much.’
Unsurprisingly, then, these disputes can be more emotional than rational. ‘In a good proportion of my meetings, someone will burst into tears,’ says Manyon. Most inheritance rows unfold between siblings, he adds, and it’s common that they mention grievances from childhood.
‘The argument over the will is never the first thing that happens,’ says another lawyer familiar with these cases. ‘It’s often a boiling up of decades of buried resentment.’
Unfortunately, the one person who could soothe bruised feelings in an inheritance dispute is the person who has died.
‘That’s why when you’re preparing your will, either you should leave your affairs in a predictable way, or you should have the gumption to actually talk about it,’ says Manyon. ‘But people are uncomfortable about that because, of course, it’s about money and it’s about death.’
If you find yourself in a dispute, it’s wise to resolve it as quickly as possible. ‘Try to find a solution where everyone may not be perfectly happy, but they can live with it,’ says Manyon. ‘And even if you’re angry, try to master it – because if you let the dispute rip, then you’re going to be in it for years, and you may spend hundreds of thousands of pounds.’
Often, a lawyer with a conscience finds themselves in the position of persuading clients to take less action, not more. ‘I’m putting myself out of a job here,’ jokes Manyon. Sadly for family relationships, however, it looks like he’ll never be short of work.
How to avoid a battle of wills
If you’re arranging your will in a way that’s likely to surprise your family, warn them. ‘Explain your reasons, and give people an opportunity to raise their objections with you,’ says Manyon. This may save them a lot of pain after you’re gone.
If you’re unhappy with a loved one’s will, think carefully before contesting it; it’s a difficult process, and it may not go your way. ‘Often in litigation, even winners are not happy,’ warns Manyon.
Which? recommends trying to work it out without lawyers first. By putting in an Inventory and Account request to the Probate Registry, you can oblige the executor to provide a full breakdown of the deceased’s estate. Try to find a resolution that all parties can live with, even if you find it unfair. ‘If you can knock it on the head, you’re going to avoid huge legal costs and stress, and it’s going to be a better outcome,’ says Manyon.
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