Disgruntled families challenge legacies left to charity

Recession could have exacerbated 'significant rise' in appeals

Charities are facing an increasing number of challenges by disgruntled family members to legacies left to them by supporters, according to a number of charities and charity lawyers.

They say a variety of factors have fuelled the trend, which has emerged over the past few years and may have been exacerbated by the recession.

Tony Cockayne, a partner at Michelmores, said one reason for the "significant" rise was that the growth in house prices before the recession had made estates much more valuable than in the past. They were now seen as worth fighting over, he said.

He said family members and dependants were also becoming more aware that it was possible to use the courts to challenge wills that did not make reasonable financial provision for them.

The ageing population also meant more challenges on the grounds that the donor lacked the necessary mental capacity when the will was made, he added. "There is a growing industry of experts who review medical records," he said.

Paul Hewitt, a partner in the charity legacy group at Withers, said some challenges were motivated by current economic pressures.

"The legal profession's willingness to embrace alternative funding arrangements, including conditional fees, means that even spurious claims can be brought, or at least threatened, with relative impunity," he added.

Hewitt said compromise was often appropriate because of the uncertainty in legacy cases. "Charities need to be commercial in the sense of analysing the amount at stake and the likely risks, both on merits and on costs," he said.

Ros Harwood, a partner at Dickinson Dees, said charities should beware of negative publicity. "Disgruntled individuals have been known to go to the press, and even though a charity might be acting properly in taking a strong line, a softer approach might be adopted to protect its reputation," she said.

Kim Berrington, head of legacy management at veterinary charity PDSA, said it was best to negotiate a settlement. But Jenny Franzmann, deputy head of legacies at the RSPCA, said challenges put charities in a difficult position. "Trustees are obliged by law to ensure that the charity collects what it is legally entitled to," she said.

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