What is contentious probate?

01 February 2023

Contentious probate is a term used to describe any dispute regarding someone's estate after their death. It is a legal process that is started when someone, usually a family member, challenges the validity or administration of a will or trust. 

Contentious probate claims are complex legal disputes over how an estate should be divided among relatives, friends, and beneficiaries. Inheritance disputes can include challenges over many things, for example, who will benefit financially from the will, who gets which assets, usually high-value assets like property, how much those assets are worth, and who has the right to administer the estate.  

The legal process of contested probate is often complex and time-consuming. It is therefore strongly advised that a specialist lawyer's guidance is sought to ensure that your legal rights are protected and the best outcome is found for you and your family's unique situation.  

It is important to remember that a will or trust cannot be contested just because a person has been left out or disagrees with the distribution of an estate or instructions in a trust. English law states that people can do as they please with their assets.  

What are the grounds for contentious probate? 

The contentious probate process can be complicated due to the complexity of evidence and the legal documentation needed to contest the will or trust. However, it is possible, and there are several grounds based on which you can contest, such as incorrect administration, lack of mental capacity, fraud, forgery, rectification, undue influence and lack of knowledge or approval.  

To make a successful challenge, it is important to provide sufficient evidence to prove that the will or other legal documents are invalid due to one of the grounds above.  

What about if there is no will? 

Contentious probate is a legal process where there is disagreement over the administration or distribution of a deceased person's estate - this is usually because someone or multiple beneficiaries don't agree with the contents of a will because they have been left out or didn't receive what they thought they were promised or entitled to.  

This can also happen when there is no will because people, usually relatives, think there was a will or that they know the deceased wishes, even if it wasn't documented, and that they should be included. In such cases, the distribution of the deceased estate will follow the rules of intestacy. 

What are the rules of intestacy? 

Intestacy is a legal term that refers to the distribution of an individual's estate when they die without leaving a valid will. For a will to be valid, it has to be in writing, signed by you and witnessed by two independent people; you also need to make the will voluntarily and have the required capacity to understand its contents and effect.  

When someone dies without a will, their assets are distributed according to the  laws of intestacy. This means that the estate is divided among family members following predetermined rules and regulations - which may not align with the deceased wishes.  

How long do contentious probate claims take? 

Contested probate claims can be a complex legal process that can take several months or even years to resolve fully. The process involves many people who may be interested in the estate; these include the executor, beneficiaries, professional advisers, and those making a claim.  

Everyone involved in a potential contentious probate claim must understand how long a claim can take and the impact that can have. There will likely be disagreements about the administration or validity of the will and other legal issues, all of which need to be resolved, which can lead to lengthy legal proceedings and delays in proving and resolving the dispute. This is where an experienced lawyer can help you navigate the process and provide updates on the potential timeline.  

What is the difference between contesting a will and contentious probate? 

The terms "contesting a will" and "contentious probate" are often used interchangeably, but there is a subtle difference between the two.  

Contesting a will is a process by which an individual can challenge the validity of a will. Contentious probate is a broader term that refers to any dispute over the administration of an estate after a person has died - this can include disputes over the value of assets and who can administer the will. 

In simple terms, contesting a will is a specific type of contentious probate claim.   

In both cases, the goal is to prove that the will or the estate administration was improperly handled. Both processes require evidence to support claims and can be time-consuming. It is important to understand the differences between contesting a will and contentious probate when considering legal action in either situation; your lawyer will be able to help you. 

Who pays in contentious probate claims? 

Contested probate can be expensive, particularly if the case ends up in court, although more than 95% of cases are resolved well before this. However, it is crucial to know who pays for the costs associated with it. It is often thought that the costs for contesting a will or trust come from the deceased estate, but this is not always the case. It is, therefore, important to understand your options to fund such a claim. Law firms usually provide several ways to fund a claim, including conditional and discounted fee arrangements, insurance policies, third-party funding and specialist litigation loans.  

However, if you are successful in your claim against the estate, you may be able to recover some or all the legal costs from the estate.  

It is important to speak to a qualified lawyer before beginning any contested probate process to understand who will be responsible for paying any expenses. 

What does a contentious probate solicitor do? 

A contentious probate solicitor is a legal professional who specialises in dealing with disputes that arise regarding the administration of an estate or the validity of a will. Your lawyer will work to resolve these disputes through negotiation or, if necessary, court proceedings. They also advise on any potential legal claims that may be brought against an estate and provide guidance on how to protect it from such claims. 

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