Will you inherit less than you expect - or nothing at all?

Writing a last will and testament
Writing a last will and testament

If you're counting on an inheritance to solve your financial problems, then you could be in for a nasty shock. Not only could your great aunt Ethel outlive you, but even if she passes away, there's a reasonable chance she won't leave you what you were expecting - and could cut you out of her will altogether.

An HRS study in America recently found that one in three wills don't distribute money equally between siblings. The fact that people marry later, pus the number of people who have been through divorces and second families, means that wills are more complicated beasts.

Even before we get into the realms of family disagreements and falling out, people may choose to leave different amounts to children and step-children, or treat money they made or property they bought before getting married separately to that accumulated during the marriage.

A separate study by First4lawyers in the UK discovered that unfairness in wills isn't just a matter of small tweaks. They found than one in three people who had been affected by an unfair will had been purposely left out - and received nothing. In 21% of cases a friend of the deceased had received more than family members, and 15% said a charity had received more than they did.

A worrying 41% of those who had either been left out or received less than expected said they had been relying on the inheritance, so the upset left them in financial difficulties. A recent study, by LV= showed that millions of people are relying on a cash windfall from an elderly relative. Without it, a fifth will not have the comfortable retirement they were hoping for, while a quarter will end up having to work on later in life in order to make ends meet.

An unfair can also destroy families. The First4lawyers study found that 49% of those affected by an unfair will no longer speak to their family because of it.

What can you do?

If you have been unfairly left out of a will, you can do something about it. The first step should be to talk to your family and see if they agree you should receive something. If you can reach agreement between you, you can vary the will in order to include you in it.

Failing that, in some cases it is possible to dispute the will in court, especially when the deceased has given no reason for the lack of fairness, it is a result of the fact the will is out of date, or there's an issue over whether the deceased knew what they were doing. Around a third of those affected by the unfair will will take a case to court, and 80% of them win.

Of course, your decision whether to take this route or not depends on your circumstances and the money involved. There are plenty of cases where family members spent every penny of the inheritance they were fighting over in bringing a case to court and battling for years.

Better solutions

It's far better never to get to this stage. In every case it's worth talking to your relatives about any inheritance before they pass away, so everyone knows what to expect. This is a relatively common approach, and the First4lawyers survey found that 66% of people had done so.

This doesn't always work, however, as 21% of older people who were asked by their family if they were going to get any money admit to having lied about it.

Instead - ideally - you should be in a position that you are never reliant on an inheritance to solve your financial problems. The LV= study showed that 28% of people don't plan to leave terribly much to their children, so if you start with the assumption you will get little or nothing, you won't be disappointed.

It's always worth remembering that this is their money, and they can do what they want with it. They may well choose to spend the lot, or they may have expensive care needs that erode every penny before they die. You can't resent these things - just as they cannot demand you spend your money in a way that suits them.

If you fall into the trap of expecting an inheritance, if the will is unfair and your share never materialises, it affects your relationship with your entire family - not just the person who has passed away. Not every family is priceless, but some are.

Unfortunately, seeing an inheritance as an unexpected windfall is easier said than done. The First4lawyers research found that 26% of people are relying on an inheritance for their future, as a result 76% would be furious if their parents left them out of the will, and 40% would be angry if their grandparents, uncle or aunt excluded them.

It's easy to see why there are so many people who feel they have been the cruel victim of an unfair will, that has damaged family relationships forever.

David Bowie's Family Will Inherit £135m
David Bowie's Family Will Inherit £135m