Can a disappointed beneficiary challenge a will?

07 November 2023

It can be disappointing to be left out of the will of a loved one if you thought you'd benefit from their estate on their death. In some very specific instances where there are appropriate legal grounds, it may be possible to contest the person's will.

However, it is important to remember that a person is free to leave their estate to whoever they wish. 

Understanding your rights as a disappointed beneficiary

Being disappointed by the contents of a will does not give you an automatic right to challenge it. Therefore, before you decide to take any legal action, it's essential to determine whether you have the legal grounds to contest a will. Generally, only individuals who would have benefited under a previous will or under the laws of intestacy (if there is no will) have the right to challenge the validity of the current will.

Challenging the validity of the will

Sometimes, a will may not be legally binding for reasons outlined below. If you believe this is the case, you can challenge the will's validity. There are five primary grounds on which you can challenge the validity of a will:

  1. Lack of formal requirements: The will needs to comply with Section 9 of the Wills Act 1837, which outlines the formalities needed for the will to be valid. The will needs to be signed by the person making the will, called the testator, and witnessed by two individuals who are both present at the time. If a will hasn't been drafted and signed following these formalities, it would make the will invalid. 
  2. Lack of testamentary capacity: the person making the will needs to have the mental capacity to understand the consequences of the wishes they have outlined and the impact those wishes may have - this is known as "testamentary capacity". If a person does not have testamentary capacity, they are not in a position to make a will. Therefore, if the person had a mental impairment, such as dementia, at the time of making the will, it may be possible to challenge its validity. In these cases, medical records are often needed as evidence.
  3. Knowledge and approval: the person making the will has to be aware and capable of understanding the contents of their will. In cases where a will is challenged on the grounds of knowledge and approval, it is vital to show the points that "excite the suspicions" and need investigation, for example, if the person writing the will is a primary beneficiary or the will differs drastically from a previous will. If there's evidence that the testator was misled or unaware of the will's contents, it may be invalidated.
  4. Undue influence: the testator must have made the will freely and without coercion or manipulation from other people. Coercion can be any form of pressure put on a person to change the contents of their will so it no longer reflects their wishes. If there is evidence that a third party pressured or manipulated the testator into making the will or changing its contents, the will may be deemed invalid.
  5. Fraudulent calumny: although similar to undue influence, fraudulent calumny deals specifically with fraudulent representation. If someone deliberately lied to the person making a will to poison their mind against a beneficiary, which caused the contents of the will to be changed, this could cause the will to be invalid. 

Seeking reasonable financial provision

If the will is valid, there are other potential ways to contest the will. If you were financially dependent on the deceased and feel that the will fails to provide adequate financial support to you moving forward, you may be able to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975

However, only certain people can claim reasonable financial provision, including: 

  • The spouse or civil partner of the deceased.
  • A former spouse or civil partner of the deceased if they have not remarried or entered another civil partnership.
  • A person living with the deceased as a cohabitant for two years or more. 
  • A child of the deceased.
  • A person treated as a child of the deceased, such as a step-child. 
  • A person financially maintained by the deceased. 

To succeed in such a claim, you must convince the court that the will or the laws of intestacy do not make reasonable financial provision for you. The court will consider various factors, including your financial needs, age, health, relationship with the deceased, the size of the estate, and the needs of other beneficiaries.

Proprietary estoppel: enforcing promises of inheritance

Finally, if your parent or another person promised you an inheritance, but their will fails to reflect that promise, you may be able to enforce it through the doctrine of proprietary estoppel.

Proprietary estoppel applies when a promise has been made, and that promise has been reasonably relied upon. If the person promised the inheritance has suffered a detriment due to being excluded from the will or how the rules of intestacy operate, it may be possible to bring a proprietary estoppel claim. In the context of inheritance, this often involves people, usually family members, working, making sacrifices and / or incurring expense in exchange for the promise of inheriting, only to be excluded from the will

Seeking expert legal guidance

Navigating the legal complexities of challenging a will can be daunting. It's highly advisable to seek guidance from experienced and expert lawyers specialising in wills and inheritance disputes. They can assess your situation, determine your legal options, and advise you on the best action.

Remember, challenging a will is a serious undertaking, and the success of your claim will depend on the specific facts and circumstances of your case. With careful consideration and expert legal support, you can increase your chances of achieving a favourable outcome.

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