More wills are being contested to the point that legal bills can swallow the entire estate.
Disputes over wills are soaring, and so is the cost of legal action. Last month it was disclosed that the family of Peter Ustinov, the celebrated actor, director and raconteur, were still fighting over his estate, nine years after his death.
He was married three times and had four children, and it is thought that legal disputes about a will that was written 36 years before he died could exhaust most of his multi-million pound estate.
But it isn't just the families of the rich and famous who end up taking legal action to protect an inheritance. Recent figures show that the number of disputed cases is rising. The latest High Court figures show that the number of court battles over wills rose by 38pc in the year to 2010, and doubled over the previous four years
Lawyers claim that the recession has helped fuel such family feuds. Andrew Kidd, a probate solicitor, said: "More people are hoping to receive an inheritance and there can be a great deal of trouble if their hopes are disappointed. People are more litigious in general and more willing to assert their rights.
"Disputes over wills are undoubtedly soaring. The recession is partly to blame, with more relying on inheritance to ease their own financial problems. More complicated family structures also cause problems. People are no longer afraid to get stuck in and give it a go."
At the same time the value of the average estate has increased significantly over the past decade.
The average estate was worth £152,358 in 2002, but has mushroomed to £265,281, according to the Office for National Statistics. But this also means that the probate bills the legal costs involved in sorting out an estate have climbed commensurately.
With solicitors typically charging on a percentage basis of around 1.5pc, the cost of processing an average estate has risen to £4,000. On an estate valued at £500,000, probate is likely to cost around £7,500. But legal fees head into the stratosphere once a will comes under any sort of challenge, which, according to probate specialists, is happening more frequently. The other big factor driving such disputes is more complex family structures.
Sarah Phillips, a partner at Thomas Eggar, a firm of solicitors, said: "In many cases it is not even about money. Some people will fight spurious claims to the bitter end to ensure that if they can't get the money, no one else can have it either."
However, solicitors say the figures for court cases are just the tip of the iceberg, as the majority of such disputes are settled out of court. Defending an estate against a challenge is an expensive business, and costs can soon eat up any inheritance. Under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act (KOSDAQ: 131400.KQ - news) 1975, a wide range of individuals may have a right to money from an estate, whatever the contents of the will.
Andrew Wood of Clarkson Wright & Jakes, another law firm, said: "Many people drawing up wills today would be shocked to discover that, no matter how beautifully it is crafted, the law will allow a cart and horse to be driven through it.
"I'm afraid you see the worst of human nature when inheritances are involved, and people are more willing than ever to go to drastic lengths to get what they think they deserve.
"Often animosities have been bubbling under the surface for years, and challenging a will can be a form of retribution for some. Given the costs of fighting a challenge, the executors and other beneficiaries may feel they have little choice but to concede."
But it is not all bad news. New fixed-price probate services from the likes of the Co-op and Saga are putting solicitors' percentage fees under pressure. Saga claims it can process a straightforward £500,000 estate for £1,890, rather than the £7,500 typically charged by solicitors.
As a result solicitors are having to trim their bills. Mr Wood said: "Solicitors are having to be more flexible when it comes to their fee arrangement, or all the business will go off to the likes of the Co-op.
"Solicitors are prepared to work for an hourly rate, a fixed fee or a percentage fee. It is in a client's interest to shop around and negotiate hard."