A legally valid will ensures your wishes are clear about who should benefit from your estate after you die.
If someone dies without a valid will in place, then the law will decide who inherits everything that person owned. This includes any property and its contents, money held in bank accounts and investments, cars, personal possessions, and even pets.
If a will is not clear and watertight it could be legally challenged. The number of contested wills going to the High Court rose by 62% in 2019.
The most common reason for contesting a will in 2018 was ‘undue influence’ — but it was the least likely to be successful, according to research from PureProfile. The most successful grounds were ‘lack of knowledge and approval’ and ‘lack of capacity’.
Sarah Coles, personal finance analyst at financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown, says: “Second and subsequent marriages mean more complicated family relationships, while higher house prices and investment values mean there’s more at stake. Add in the fact that older people are increasingly likely to have had some kind of help with care from at least one family member, and it’s hardly surprising the number of contested wills is on the up,” Coles said.
So what are the grounds for challenging a will?
You don’t follow the rules when the will is draw up
There are certain crucial rules that must be followed in order for a will to be valid. These include getting it in writing, signing it, and getting it witnessed by two people who were both there when you signed it and who meet specific criteria. Your will cannot be witnessed by relatives, beneficiaries of the will, those lacking mental capacity, blind people or minors under the age of 18. If someone falls foul of any of these rules their will can be legally challenged and found invalid.
You don’t make ‘reasonable provision’ for anyone who has been financially dependent on you
The Inheritance Act 1975 means a will must make ‘reasonable provision’ for financial dependants such as children or a spouse. It also includes all sorts of family members including adult children in some specific circumstances. A will can be contested by financial dependants that have been left out of a will entirely or have not been left as much as they need.
You don’t have ‘capacity’ when the will is drawn up
If someone does not have the mental capacity to make the will and understand the effect it will have the will will be invalid. This applies if you don’t understand you’re making a will that divides your estate, you don’t appreciate the value of the estate, you don’t know who the beneficiaries are, or you are suffering from a mental condition that impairs your ability to make decisions.
You lack ‘knowledge and approval’
A will can be challenged if it is believed that you did not know enough about the contents of the will when you sign it and so did not understand what you were agreeing to.
You’re under ‘undue influence’
In order for a will to be valid you must have made the will voluntarily and without pressure from anyone else. A person’s will can be challenged if it is believed that someone put them under pressure to write or change a will in their favour.
There’s fraud or forgery
A will can be contested on the grounds that the signature or the will itself has been forged.
“With record numbers of contested wills reaching the High Court, your will may not be worth the paper it’s written on. If you’ve made a will, you’re doing better than most people — because more than half of people in the UK haven’t. But soaring numbers of contested wills mean it’s vital that your will is as watertight as possible,” Coles said.