When the will won’t go your way

More parents favouring one child over another, multiple marriages and the rise in property prices have led to a huge increase in inheritance disputes. Anna Moore reports on the anguish these family feuds can cause.

 Although it was more than a decade ago, Marianne can still recall the moment she learned the contents of her late mother’s will. ‘My brother sent me a copy in the post,’ she says. ‘Until then, it had never crossed my mind that our mother would do anything other than share her possessions equally between my brothers and me. But I couldn’t see my name mentioned in the will. I kept reading and rereading it. And then, when I realised that my mother had left everything to my brothers, it felt as though I’d been physically attacked. Time stood still. I couldn’t stand up; I couldn’t breathe. I was in shock. I’ve been in therapy on and off ever since.’

Marianne is the only child from her mother’s first marriage. Her father died when she was two, and her mother remarried and had two sons. ‘They were my brothers, and their dad was the only dad I’d known,’ she says. ‘I thought we were a solid unit, a normal family.’ Marianne’s stepfather died first, leaving everything to her mother who lived until her late 80s.

‘I remained close by and had been there for her – visiting, doing shopping, collecting medicines,’ says Marianne, who is divorced with no children. ‘In the will, it was as if I’d never existed. Mum’s house, her savings, her belongings all went to her sons. I looked back at holidays, Christmases, birthdays in a different way. All those years, had I never been loved or wanted? My brothers accepted the terms of the will, and made no effort to contact me again. We haven’t spoken since – and I’ve never seen their children, my nieces and nephews. It wasn’t only about the money. I lost absolutely everything that day.’

While Marianne decided against challenging the will – fearing the financial and emotional cost – others do translate their pain and anger into legal action. There are few reliable figures on the number of inheritance disputes currently flying between solicitors, but lawyers across the country agree they are rising. Although cases reaching the High Court are the tip of the iceberg, figures revealed in 2013 showed a 700 per cent increase in these family feuds over the previous five years, while the latest figures show an 11 per cent hike between 2014 and 2015 of people challenging their parents’ estates.

Ian Lane, head of wills and probate at London solicitors Hodge Jones & Allen, says it’s a ‘sign of our age. My experience in more than 40 years of practice is that challenging wills has become pretty commonplace,’ he says. ‘It used to happen with about one in 100 wills. Now it’s closer to ten in 100. We live longer, property is worth more, but I think the main reason is that families are more complicated now, with multiple marriages and competing interests.’

Occasionally, a bitter inheritance feud will burst into the headlines. The family of music producer and so-called ‘fifth Beatle’ George Martin is one example. George had left his first wife and two children Alexis and Greg in the 1960s for his secretary Judy Lockhart-Smith, and the couple went on to have two children together.

When he died in March, aged 90, George left nothing to Greg in his will, while a sum of £325,000 was to be shared between Alexis, his former chauffeur, his secretary, three grandchildren and a niece. The remainder of his estate went to his wife Judy – and if she had died before him, he wanted it shared between their two children Giles and Lucie.

Alexis, now 63, who had already felt sidelined by her father’s second family and frozen out of funeral plans, is now contemplating legal action. An emotional email sent to her half-sister Lucie shows that the will was simply the final layer in a lifetime of hurts. ‘There were so many examples I could cite over the years, both big and small, of how we were…treated as second class compared to you two and your kids,’ she wrote.

In fact, children from first marriages feature heavily in recent cases. The aristocrat Jonathan Kemp, Lord Rochdale, has been embroiled in legal lockdown since his father left his £11.3 million estate to his second wife and her eldest son from a previous marriage. Lord Rochdale claims that his stepmother was ‘controlling, overbearing and forceful’ and poisoned his father’s mind. Meanwhile, magician Paul Daniels’s eldest son from his first marriage is at the centre of a furious row over his late father’s estate, which was left to his second wife of 28 years, Debbie McGee.

In another recent example, Danielle Ames lost her challenge to her father’s £1 million legacy. Danielle provides care for her mother and her father’s elderly mother, and although she says her father had promised she would be ‘looked after’ in his will, he left everything to his second wife. (This in spite of his business being originally a family enterprise from his first wife’s – Danielle’s mother’s – side.) The ruling judge dismissed Danielle’s claim for a £300,000 share and advised her to get a job instead.

But cases like this really aren’t about the pound signs, says psychologist Dr Lynne Jordan. ‘I’d say it’s rarely about the money itself, or at least not solely,’ she says. ‘Wills are seen as the “final message” from an important person in our lives so they carry a significance that goes far beyond financial matters. To family members, these can seem to set out on paper how much they were valued by the person who died.’

And when it comes to wills, that first rule of parenting – that you love and treat your children equally – can fly out of the window. ‘Some people do want to leave things equally,’ says Stephen Lawson, partner at FDR Law in Cheshire and member of the Society of Trust & Estate Practitioners. ‘Others may think one child needs it more, or that they have already given substantial financial aid to one child while they were alive and not the other. Sometimes, it’s a way of settling old scores and sometimes people are mischievous, too. They tell their child, “You’ll be all right in my will” as they want to keep you on your toes and may need you to do their shopping.

Avoid nasty surprises by talking about the will before you die

‘If there have been tensions bubbling for years, a will can bring these to the surface. Other times, it can create rifts that weren’t there before. Families who’d had Christmas dinner together last year find the next time they’re all together is around a lawyer’s table.’

Children of first families seem most likely to lose out. ‘It happens so often,’ says Ian Lane. ‘The children of the second marriage, or the current marriage, are much closer to the surviving spouse. Over the years, the children of the first marriage can become “the opposition”. I’ve seen it many times.’

Sometimes the current spouse can prevent someone from leaving anything to the children from a former marriage. It’s not that those children are loved less – more that the person acquiesces for an easy life. Chris Partington from Slater Heelis solicitors has such a client now. ‘This man has one child from his first marriage and two with his second wife,’ he explains. ‘When he and his wife die, he wants their estate split equally three ways – but when they come to the office, his wife says no. She says that he made a payout to his ex-wife when they divorced so the rest should be for their children alone.

‘This has been going on for a while and seems to be in stalemate. I have to say, I’m with him. Love comes in many guises and if he doesn’t leave things equal, his first child may see his legacy as proof that she wasn’t valued as highly as his other children.’

This is exactly how Jenny and her sister felt when their father left everything to his second wife – who then passed it on to their two children. ‘Dad walked out when we were teenagers,’ says Jenny. ‘Our relationship had been difficult, especially in the first five years after he left, as we were angry teens and the way Dad handled everything had been pretty despicable.’

Slowly, over decades, the relationship improved. When the sisters married, their father walked them down the aisle and when they had children of their own, he was a doting grandfather.