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Family good Will: avoiding disputes on death

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Julie Doncaster.
Julie Doncaster.


WHEN a family member dies, it is a stressful and upsetting time. Recently, we have seen more cases dealing with the estate of someone who has passed away become contentious and on occasion reach court.

There are many reasons, for example, poor planning or the beneficiaries' misconceptions and unrealistic expectations – or both. To help avoid this, Harper Macleod Partner Julie Doncaster shares her advice as someone who encounters both sides of the arguments.

For individuals:

1. Make a good Will. This needs to be bespoke to your circumstances and consider the dynamics of your relations. Who'll be a practical and trustworthy option for the role of executor and can numerous executors work together? Most often a majority rules so you may end up with the executor who wants to do the right thing by you being outvoted.

Take specialist advice to make sure you; (1) find a way to balance different relationships such as children from another relationship; (2) protect a vulnerable beneficiary; (3) mitigate nursing home care costs or inheritance tax.

It is often a false economy to draft a Will on your own or use online services as they can lead to uncertainty, additional costs and ultimately arguments among family.

2. Lifetime gifts. Consider making gifts and also placing provisions in your Will to distribute your estate to take into account inequalities among children or other family members. Keep good records of gifts made as this may be required by HMRC. Specialist advice can help where the main asset is a farm or business which can pass to only one of the family.

3. Security and digital assets: Wills and other deeds should always be kept in a safe, preferably with a solicitor or bank. A will going missing or being destroyed by accident (or indeed on purpose) can cause huge upset, cost and delay. If possible keep online passwords in the safe and be aware of what the policies are for online platforms and social media sites on the death of a user.

4. Funeral instructions: Simple instructions in a will can allow the family to progress with arrangements confident they are taking the right steps. More detailed arrangements can be made in an informal letter of wishes. If you wish to donate organs, make sure you have registered this with your doctor and have researched the requirements.

For family members:

1. Sensitivity. Remember, siblings and other family members may cope differently with the loss of the loved one.

2. DIY woes. For those who try to deal with parts of the executry process themselves, there are many technical legal requirements that often lead to solicitors having to revisit the efforts of the family.

3. Personal items. Sometimes you need to be ruthless – taking too long to sort personal items could leave you with mounting bills for unoccupied insurance, services and council tax and in the long-term affect the value of the property. Also, involving a solicitor in arguments over sentimental items may be very costly.

4. Financial delays. Remember, the executry process can take up to a year or more and funds may not be available for many months after the death.

5. Respect the final wishes of the deceased. If they have stated they wish their body to be donated to science, even if this would not be your own wish, it is important to achieve what they would have wanted.

In all instances, remember that if a dispute does arise, seek help early via your solicitor or perhaps an independent mediator.

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