BRIXTON LEGAL: Inheritance and wills – don’t jump to conclusions

Pam Douglas is a solicitor with local firm Wainwright and Cummins. Each month, her column takes a common legal issue and explains it for readers

Signing a will

We quite often receive enquiries from people who believe that they are beneficiaries under a will and that they have somehow been short-changed and not received the inheritance they are entitled to.

Given that many of the people involved in the administration of a deceased person’s estate might still be grieving the loss themselves, this kind of issue can be particularly tricky to get to the bottom of and needs to be approached sensitively, dispassionately and logically.

It’s a good idea to take some time to do your homework thoroughly before making any allegations of wrongdoing or error.

First, you need to obtain a copy of the will so that you can determine what was left and to whom.

Next, you need to be sure that probate has already been granted because the estate cannot be distributed without it. You can check online and purchase a copy of the will and the grant of probate for £10. See the official probate website.

The will sets out who the executors are and how the estate is to be distributed. It will usually list any specific cash (pecuniary) gifts first and then deal with the gifts of residue – the remainder of the estate, which will often include property, shares and other investments.

The executors’ job is to gather in and distribute the assets according to the will, while keeping a proper record.

If the will says that you are a beneficiary and your gift includes property in England and Wales, you should also check the Land Registry to confirm who the property is currently registered to. A copy of the title will cost £6.00.

If it is clear from the will that you were supposed to receive a pecuniary gift that you have not had, you should contact the executors to make enquiries.

It could be that the distribution of the deceased’s estate is ongoing and your concern is premature. Or it might even be that they were unable to trace you. It’s best not to jump to conclusions.

Certain individuals are entitled by law to be provided with a copy of the estate accounts, which are a complete financial record, prepared by the executors, of how the estate has been distributed, including any costs incurred in the distribution.

If you were named as a residuary beneficiary (someone who is entitled to a share of the remainder of an estate after taxes, funeral expenses, cash gifts etc., have been dealt with), or if you are the parent or guardian of a minor beneficiary, then you are entitled to receive a copy, once the distribution has been finalised.

Wills are usually written using quite archaic language and many non-lawyers find it difficult to make sense of them.

It’s therefore often a good idea to get the opinion of an experienced practitioner to confirm that your understanding of the will is correct.

If you fall into one of the “entitled” categories but the estate accounts are being withheld from you or are incomplete, you can apply to the relevant Probate Registry for an “inventory and account order” to force the executors to comply, disclose the relevant paperwork and clarify any issues.

If your application is approved, a date for a hearing will be set and the executor will be issued with a court summons.

In many cases, receiving a court summons will be sufficient to nudge a “difficult” executor into doing the right thing and providing you with the requested information.

In one recent case, a beneficiary believed he had been deprived to the tune of about £5,000. I was able to demonstrate to him that he was entitled to significantly more and, following a court summons, the executors eventually agreed to give him a sizeable share of a valuable property.

There is no court fee for the application itself but, please be aware that, if you are unable or unwilling to represent yourself at the hearing, you will need to instruct a lawyer.

It is also possible that, if your case is deemed spurious, you could have costs awarded against you.

It is therefore important to

  1. be sure that your concerns are valid and that you have taken the correct steps; and
  2. consider whether the value of your lost inheritance warrants taking legal action in the first place.

As usual, this is general guidance and many cases are more complex, so do get in touch if there’s anything I can help with.