Case studies

The Search is on – supporting contentious probate teams

By Estatesearch on May 31st, 2024

By John Tunnard, Legal Director, Shakespeare Martineau

Based in the prestigious Queen Square in the heart of Bristol, Shakespeare Martineau is firmly cementing its place as one of the top legal firms in the region.  We provide legal services to business, organisations and families across a myriad of specialisms. 

Contentious and non-contentious cases

After recently joining the firm, we have recruited Solicitor, Meg Edwards and continue to build our client and professional relationships at apace. We are fortunate to also work within our already well-established national Contentious Probate and Trusts Team and Non-Contentious Private Client Department here in Bristol.  

I am first asked whether there is a new trend in disputes relating to wills, estates and trusts. Whilst disputes over land and estates have been around since time immemorial, we have witnessed a significant rise in claims being made. We attribute this increase to the natural passing of the wealthy property-rich, baby-boomer generation. An increase in property prices also affects this. Descendants are perhaps more likely to claim where there is an estate of significant value at stake.

Managing disputes and contentious probate cases

Nowadays, there are more blended and complex family arrangements, and couples cohabiting together. This can lead to more disputes where, for example, partners and relatives are disinherited when least expected.

In addition, people are living longer and there has sadly been an increase in those living with dementia; leading to a greater number of claims against the validity of wills on the grounds of a lack of testamentary capacity and/or undue influence. Similarly increased vulnerability has led to claims within the Court of Protection against those who have, for example, taken advantage of a person’s vulnerable state by committing financial abuse.

More generally, there is a greater public awareness of the type of claims that can be brought.

With probate, inheritance and Court of Protection disputes, there is always a point at which the size and nature of an estate needs to be established. Indeed, establishing this early often better informs a client’s decision on what steps they may wish to take in litigating a claim or settling. Inherently there are significant costs and risks associated with the claims we deal with, so the value of the estate will likely focus a client’s thinking on whether their intended steps are proportionate in the circumstances of their case. 

Locating the Will

Likewise, carrying out an Estatesearch Will Search proves useful when considering a probate claim. For example, if a client seeks to overturn the last Will, you need to consider what any earlier Will(s) say. Previous wills can also fall to be considered in the context of validity disputes where a later Will appears on its face to be a significant departure from previous Wills.

I have worked with Estatesearch for around five years at both my previous firm and now with Shakespeare Martineau. I have found both their Financial Profile and Will Searches to be particularly helpful not just in the context of the abovementioned disputes, but also when acting for clients who are appointed as personal representatives who have a duty to identify and collect in the estate. 

Our aim is to bring any contentious probate case to its conclusion in a timely professional and cost-efficient manner.  Estatesearch helps us achieve this through their searches and reports which can demonstrate that all possible steps have been made.

By way of a case example, I was instructed in a case involving two brothers who had been estranged from their deceased father.  Shortly before his death, they reconciled. However, after his death, a Will appeared leaving his estate to his carer. Following an application to the Probate Registry for a copy of that Will and on obtaining statements from the witnesses to it, it was found not to have been duly executed.   However, by this point, the carer had already contacted financial institutions, closed down accounts, and received monies under the banks’ indemnity process i.e. without production of a Grant of Probate. In the meantime, my clients obtained letters of administration.   

The carer had cleared the property so there was no paperwork to speak of. She was also unwilling to disclose information regarding where the deceased held his assets.  We therefore used Estatesearch to identify the relevant bank accounts enabling further investigation on our part which revealed the carer had taken direct payments both in life and after death.  Once the carer had been traced, we were able to support the brothers to make a successful claim to recover the funds.

Estatesearch’s Financial Profile Search actively notifies and searches more than 150 organisations, searching over 450 companies and brands including banks, building societies, investment managers, share registrars, pension providers, and insurers to help identify live, online, lost, and dormant accounts.  The search includes AML and identity trace, Liability Search, Financial Asset Search, and, in the Financial Profile Premium, Company Directorships,  and an Unclaimed Asset Search which includes up to 40 additional pension and insurance providers to help locate forgotten accounts, policies and shareholdings.  All subjects are automatically enrolled with the Vulnerability Registration Service to prevent fraud and financial abuse against the estate too.

Estatesearch also offer a Living Asset Search which can assist in Court of Protection cases involving the determination of financial abuse by attorneys and deputies. 

Our non contentious probate team also use the services of Estatesearch, to include share and vehicle valuations.  The various reports offer an efficient and cost-effective approach that helps the personal representatives (which can include our firm if acting as professional executors) to demonstrate due diligence.  By doing cost-effective searches we reduce both time and costs which are otherwise incurred through protracted correspondence with multiple financial institutions. It also assists in giving beneficiaries peace of mind that no stone has been left unturned. 

Further information about Shakespeare Martineau.

Originally published in Today’s Wills & Probate – 31st May 2024

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