Contentious probate refers to a legal dispute that arises over the validity of a will or the administration of an estate after someone has passed away. These disputes can arise for various reasons, including disagreements among beneficiaries, concerns about the mental capacity of the deceased at the time the will was made, allegations of undue influence or coercion in the creation of the will, or disputes over the interpretation of the terms of the will.

In contentious probate cases, parties may challenge the validity of the will or aspects of its administration through litigation in court. This process can be complex and emotionally charged, as it often involves family members or other beneficiaries who may have conflicting interests.

Common issues in contentious probate cases include:

1.    Validity of the Will: Challenges may be raised regarding whether the will was properly executed according to legal requirements, whether the deceased had the mental capacity to make a valid will, or whether the will was influenced by undue pressure or fraud.

The key to this type of claim is the gathering of evidence. It is simply not possible to bring a claim without evidence. One way of gathering evidence is preparing what is known as a Larke v Nugus letter, named after the 1979 case Larke v Nugus. Essentially, this is a document/letter designed to obtain information about the circumstances surrounding the making of the will.

In the Larke v Nugus case, the court ruled that if there were suspicions or concerns about the validity of a will, the executor or the solicitor who drafted the will should provide information to the party raising those concerns. This information would typically include details about the circumstances in which the will was made, such as the testator’s mental capacity, knowledge, and approval of the contents of the will, as well as any evidence of undue influence or coercion.

Therefore, a Larke v Nugus letter is a letter sent to the solicitor who prepared the will, requesting information about the will-making process. This letter aims to gather evidence that could either confirm or dispel suspicions about the validity of the will. The solicitor is expected to respond to the letter with relevant information, which may help resolve any disputes or concerns about the will’s validity without the need for litigation.

The purpose of the Larke v Nugus letter is to ensure transparency and fairness in contentious probate matters by providing parties with access to information that may shed light on the circumstances surrounding the creation of the will. It serves as a tool for investigating potential issues of fraud, undue influence, or lack of testamentary capacity, thereby promoting the integrity of the probate process. Once a response is received then further decisions can be made regarding challenging the validity of the will.

2.    Executor Disputes: Disputes may arise concerning the appointment or actions of the executor or personal representative responsible for administering the estate. Allegations of mismanagement, self-dealing, or breach of fiduciary duty may be raised.

3.    Beneficiary Disputes: Beneficiaries may contest the distribution of assets under the will, arguing that they are entitled to a larger share or that certain assets should be included or excluded from the estate.

The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 allows certain categories of individuals to make a claim against an estate if they believe that the deceased’s will or intestacy (when there is no will) does not adequately provide for them. The Act aims to ensure that reasonable financial provision is made for family members and dependents from the deceased’s estate.

Key points of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 include:

a. Eligible Claimants: The Act allows specific categories of individuals to make a claim, including spouses or civil partners of the deceased, former spouses or civil partners who have not remarried, children (including adult children), cohabiting partners who lived with the deceased for at least two years prior to their death, and any other person who was being maintained, either wholly or partly, by the deceased immediately before their death.

b. Grounds for a Claim: To succeed in a claim under the Act, the claimant must demonstrate that the deceased’s will or intestacy failed to make reasonable financial provision for them. This may involve showing that the provision made for them is insufficient for their maintenance, education, or other needs.

c. Factors Considered by the Court: When determining whether to make an order for provision, the court considers various factors, including the financial resources and needs of the claimant, the financial resources and needs of any other beneficiaries of the estate, any obligations or responsibilities the deceased had towards the claimant or other beneficiaries, the size and nature of the estate, and any other relevant circumstances.

d. Discretion of the Court: The Act gives the court discretion to make orders for reasonable financial provision from the estate. The court may vary the distribution of the estate to ensure that adequate provision is made for eligible claimants.

e. Time Limits: There are strict time limits for bringing a claim under the Act. In most cases, a claim must be brought within six months from the date of the grant of probate or letters of administration, although the court has the discretion to extend this time limit in certain circumstances.

4.    Interpretation of the Will: Disputes may arise over the interpretation of specific terms or provisions in the will, particularly if they are ambiguous or open to different interpretations.

5.    Professional Negligence: Claims may arise against Legal professionals in respect of the drafting of a will and/or its execution. Claims may also arise in relation to the conduct of the probate, as well as the associated cost.

Contentious probate cases can be time-consuming, costly, and emotionally draining for all parties involved. They require skilled legal representation and may ultimately be resolved through negotiation, mediation, or a trial in court.

It is vital to seek advice as soon as possible because there are strict time limits to adhere to, particularly in respect of claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. In addition, if there is a potential dispute, it is essential not to have estate assets distributed as it ultimately may be difficult to retrieve them once distributed.

Can we help you? For a free consultation, please contact us on 0113 512 7737, email stevennewdall@thomasharveysolicitors.co.uk or via the contact page on our website, www.thomasharveysolicitors.co.uk.

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