The trend that shows a dramatic increase in the number of inheritance disputes being brought before the UK Courts is also being seen in Jersey, according to a local solicitor.
Charlotte Elliott of the local law firm Benest & Syvret says that recent reports in the UK have highlighted an increase in inheritance disputes as family members fight each other in Court to win a share of recession hit family estates.
Miss Elliott said: ‘I was interested to see reports that there has been some 19% increase in inheritance disputes in the UK over the course of the last twelve months. Here in Jersey there has certainly been an increase in the volume of actions relating to a deceased person’s Estate.’ The Court’s records show that applications before the Royal Court to reduce a Will have almost doubled year on year since 2009.
Jersey has its own unique laws in respect of the share of a personal estate which a family member is entitled to claim. The Wills and Succession (Jersey) Law 1993 updated the position which previously existed under Customary Law. If a person who has made a Will dies survived by their husband or wife, as a minimum the surviving spouse is entitled to claim the contents of the matrimonial home and two- thirds of the rest of the net movable estate. If however there are also living children, the spouse’s entitlement is reduced to the household effects and one third of the rest of the net movable estate with the children being entitled to claim between them a further third. The remaining third may be disposed of in accordance with the deceased wishes. Finally if the deceased is survived only by his children those children are entitled to claim as their minimum entitlement two-thirds of the Personal Estate.
Miss Elliott went on to explain: ‘It is in this area that we have seen an increase in activity. The process by which the person claims their minimum entitlement is known as reduction of the Will. Given that the law spells out the precise entitlement, the principle of reduction is rarely challenged. There can however be keenly fought debates over the net value of the Estate, that is to say what falls into the pot to be divided up and what liabilities if any should be paid off before the division is carried out’.
Miss Elliott has been endeavouring to understand the rationale behind the trend. She says it is difficult to pin down a reason for the increase in claims. ‘In the UK it was suggested that many family estates have been decimated by recession leaving less money for the beneficiaries after death. Clearly that must be a factor in Jersey also. If there was an expectation of a significant inheritance which does not materialise then undoubtedly beneficiaries will want to ensure that they press for their fair share’, she said.
‘Equally I think that increasingly people have a greater awareness of the entitlement that they have when it comes to dividing up an Estate. Internet and other media resources mean that people have better access to information in relation to their rights. Certainly we are seeing clients who are already well informed as to their position in relation to an Estate.’
Challenges to Wills do not only come in the form of reduction to enforce a legal entitlement to a share in the Estate. A dispute in relation to a Will can arise in many ways other than the way in which the Estate is divided up. Recent years have seen cases coming before the Royal Court in relation to Testator’s capacity, payment of Executor’s costs in administering the Estate and most recently in relation to whether or not a missing person had in fact passed away so that an administrator to his Estate could be appointed. Given the wide ranging areas where disputes can arise together with the combined effect of recession and people being better informed, it seems probable the trend of increasing numbers of disputes in this area will continue.
Despite the trend Miss Elliott says it’s still very important that people consider making a Will: ‘I would always advise people to make a Will. There is however a real danger in using pre-printed formats downloaded from the internet. Those formats are invariably set up to provide for English Law. The statutes in Jersey provide for an entirely different system and specific Jersey legal advice should be obtained if these kind of disputes are to be avoided.’
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