Could your will be contested?
The daughter of a Sikh pensioner who left only a fraction of his £870,000 estate to her has won a legal battle to declare the document invalid.
Ranjit Singh died in his 70s in March 2009 leaving almost his entire estate to his three sons Jarnail, Ajaib and Jugdeep Balvinder. Two of his daughters - including Balvinder Kaur Ahluwalia, who took the case to the High Court - received £20,000 each, while a third sister got nothing.
After her father's death, Mrs Ahluwalia, a 42-year-old shipping solicitor, took up a legal battle over the will with her three brothers.
Mr Singh, of Crawley, West Sussex, signed his will in 1999 but during the four-day hearing, Mrs Ahluwalia challenged it on grounds that the two witnesses to the document were not both present at the same time to see Mr Singh sign it.
One of the sons, Jarnail Singh, who is also solicitor, had defended his father's will. He argued that in line with Sikh tradition, the eldest sons assume the main role and daughters are treated as part of their husband's family and provided for through large wedding dowries.
Yet the will was declared invalid and the estate will now be divided equally between Mr Singh's six children. In his verdict, Judge Mark Cawson QC said there was 'the strongest evidence' that the legal formalities had not been complied with.
The main issue affecting the judge's ruling was the evidence of one witness to the will, Mr Singh's 78-year-old next-door neighbour, Maurice Grantham, who was 'adamant' that he and the other witness were not present at the same time when Mr Singh signed.
Could your will be contested?
Law firms report a rise in disputes over will in recent years, mainly due to people leaving more wealth and divorces creating more complex family arrangements.
Under British law you can leave your estate to whomever you wish. Yet in England and Wales, a will can be challenged under the 1975 Inheritance (Provisions for family and dependants) Act if the person was financially dependent and this ceased or was substantially reduced on death.
While the 1975 act means no will can be totally watertight, there are steps you can take to prevent your will from being contested. The main option – if you want to leave specific amounts to different people or cut people out of a will – is to write what is called an Inheritance Act Statement or Declaration alongside your will.
This statement, which typically written at the same time as your will, sets out your reasoning for writing your will as you have and is legally recognised document.
With or without a Inheritance Act Statement it is crucial to ensure your will is valid which means it must be in writing; it must be signed and witnessed; you must have the mental capacity to make the will and understand the effect it will have, and you must not have made it as a result of pressure from someone else.
The safest way to do this and ensure your assets are divided as you wish, is to seek professional legal advice. Avoid the many unregulated solicitors or will writers around or attempting to do it yourself using a basic will writing kit. Find advice on the DirectGov site or Citizen's Advice.