Law Firm Reports 260% Spike In Contested Probate
JMW Solicitors has seen a 260% increase in contested probate cases, which they say will continue to rocket due to “lockdown wills” and a squeeze on finances heralding vicious battles for meagre sums.
Law firms experienced a surge in demand for will writing services as lockdown measures took effect – not just the elderly, but scores of young and middle aged people classed as clinically vulnerable, and those simply worried about adding to their families’ burden should they fall victim to the disease.
Alison Parry, Partner at JMW Solicitors, said:
“Coronavirus will create a perfect storm when it comes to contested probate – and the battles are likely to be more vicious given thousands are facing financial ruin as a result of Covid-19 and millions more anticipate redundancy. People will be much more likely to challenge a will – and for much smaller claims – and will be far less willing to negotiate.”
JMW has told us that they expect to see an increase in the number of families asking how a relatives’ will was executed, who was in attendance and how capacity was established – medical records may also be assessed.
Lawyers continued to visit clients during lockdown, but will signing wasn’t always properly observed. Isolation rules meant that advisors were forced to get creative – watching wills signed through windows and via video conference became a common occurrence, but is likely to fuel future probate battles. Family members will quite rightly raise questions around undue influence and capacity given that the process was undertaken at a distance.
“Face-to-face meetings with the elderly and vulnerable has proven difficult, particularly those in care homes or hospices – lawyers have been permitted access via side doors wearing full PPE, but visits were kept very brief, which raises questions around capacity. Have they spent enough time with the client to establish that the individual has capacity to make these particular decisions? It’s likely to be a route explored by family members seeking to challenge a will.
“There’s also a major issue around undue influence which we’re likely to see relatives leveraging – witnessing the signing of a will through a window is perfectly legal, but the advisor must be certain that there is no-one out of view exerting influence. Can they really be sure? How was that established without access to the property? Families are also likely to question whether instructions could be heard properly via a distanced procedure – particularly for the elderly or hearing impaired.
“The same is true of witnessing Zoom or Facetime – scores of wills have been produced and signed from a hospital bed during the last 12 weeks. Lawyers often request the client use the screen to do establish that there is no-one else in attendance before the will is signed, but the risk is there.
“Nothing should be assumed and nothing taken for granted – even when a will exists in black and white, where the intention of the deceased is crystal clear, an estate isn’t immune from challenge.”