Court case shows how contentious probate can split families

24 May 2022

If you’re not careful, contentious trusts and probate cases can easily turn hostile and result in huge legal fees – that’s the warning from a leading Midlands lawyer.

Georgia Stott, Associate in our contentious probate team, has closely followed the case of Bill Reeves and his sister Louise and the ugly battle over their father’s estimated £100m estate.

After a protracted three-week trial with 47 witnesses, a judge ruled that Louise had manipulated her father into changing his original will and awarded Bill a £27m share.

Georgia said: “This dispute highlights just how hostile contentious trusts and probate cases can be. Families who didn’t predict that they would become embroiled in a dispute can easily find themselves the recipients of a claim or, following a shock when the terms of a loved one’s will are revealed, face the prospect of either pursuing a claim or having to accept that their loved one’s true wishes may not be followed. 

“But it doesn’t have to spiral into the sort of hostile and costly litigation we saw in the Reeves case. Whilst it can be a very difficult time, we at Higgs are here to help. We will explain to clients what their options are - both those involving court proceedings and alternative ways of resolving a dispute - and always agree with a client what tone to adopt. Some clients are keen to try and resolve matters without them becoming hostile and we fully support this. 

“That said, we cannot control the actions of the other side and will look to protect our clients at all times, to the extent we are able, from dealing with what can be very difficult circumstances. We are here to support our clients each step of the way.”

In the Reeves case, a 2012 version of Kevin Reeves’ will split the estate between Bill, Louise and other family members.

However, upon death a more recent will dated 2014 left almost everything to Louise – and cut Bill out entirely.

However, the judge ruled that “very materialistic” Louise had probably engineered the will and had not proved that her father knew and approved its contents.

The family now faces seemingly irreparable damage to relationships.

Georgia said: “This case also shows that a dispute over a will can easily spiral into a full-blown, three-week trial, with dozens of witnesses all testifying as to their views of the deceased. 

“Some estates, such as this one, can, in theory at least, tolerate the associated costs. That said, it can still be difficult to stomach the fact that tens of thousands of pounds may end up being incurred in lawyers’ costs. 

“But for other estates, this is totally disproportionate. Our job is to advise as to the best options available to our clients, including the most efficient and proportionate means of resolving the matter. Sometimes that will mean an application to court. 

“But it can also mean trying to resolve a dispute without recourse to the courts, something which the courts strongly encourage. We will assist clients through that process.”

Georgia said if court is an inevitability, Higgs is able to offer fair and reasonable fee estimates for each stage, and can assist clients in exploring other funding arrangements, such as loans from professional providers who specialise in matters such as this.

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