Heredity has gone wrong – a popular topic in fiction. In the recent German mini-series “The Funeral”, the unilateral will of the family patriarch destroys the whole ceremony, and prolonged hostilities are broadcast at the grave.
In our study, we tried to understand why families go to court to fight for inheritance. We have found that since 1985 there has been an annual increase in hereditary disputes. Using a database of digital reports, we selected 32 lawsuits held in England in 2014 for careful analysis, giving a detailed view of modern family life.
Here are four reasons why families can go to court to appeal a will, and how to avoid litigation.
Families go to court if there is something to fight for. This chart shows the amounts at stake in the cases we reviewed.
Smaller hereditary disputes are more often resolved out of court. If you have significant assets, planning for inheritance becomes extremely important.
Owning a business
Physical assets are extremely difficult to divide and distribute among family members. This makes the will of the family home a difficult task, especially if one child continues to live in the family home. If the house is divided between siblings, a child living in the family home will be asked to take out a mortgage to pay off their siblings.
However, this is even worse for physical assets related to labor businesses, such as agricultural land. Typically, people seek to protect the family business by passing it on to one heir. However, problems can arise when family members are promised an inheritance or given an “oral indication” that they will receive it – and may be running a business pending it – and then not included in the will.
However, the promise can be fulfilled in English law, so the heir can have a very solid legal basis to claim these promised property rights in court. This is especially true if they have acted in the past, hoping to keep that promise, such as carrying out repairs or renovations.
Rivalry of brothers and sisters
Most of the conflicts we encountered in our study occurred among members of one generation. The rivalry and envy of the brothers and sisters is the main reason to go to court over the estate. This graph shows the relationship between the parties in the cases we investigate.
More siblings and a large large family make it difficult to find common ground regarding a fair share of assets.
The legacy of divorce
Conflicts between ex-partners can lead to clashes between children and parents who have survived.
One of the cases we considered concerned the deceased mother and the tax on her pension. She had retirement assets in her ex-husband’s business, but handed them over before her death to ensure they passed it on to her children, not her ex-husband. This is an example of how unresolved divorce conflicts can continue to haunt children even after the death of their parents.
How to avoid conflict
Inheritance makes it possible to maintain social status or become on the ladder of property. Based on our examples of litigation, families need to follow a few simple rules. You need open and honest communication. In many cultures, openly talking about death is forbidden, but communicating your intentions and expectations throughout life will reduce stress and the possibility of unwanted surprises for your loved ones.
It is important to keep your promises. In other words, do not change the will at the last minute on the deathbed – it can be easily challenged in court.
Finally, children who are afraid of being abandoned should seek constructive, non-conflicting conversations in their parents ’lives. Building such mutual lifelong expectations is key. Afterwards, the families are left with only judges as arbitrators.
Stefan KoppeAssociate Professor, Department of Social Policy, University College Dublin
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