Disputes around how a person’s estate should be distributed are soaring official figures show, attributed to poorly drafted, or the lack of, wills to set out their wishes.

Planning for what happens after you die may seem morbid, but it could help prevent extra stress and upset – as well as a large bill – for those you leave behind.

Research by law firm Nockolds shows there were 9,926 challenges to how inherited estates are managed and distributed – known as probate – in England and Wales in 2021.

The figure was up 37% compared with 2019, according to a freedom of information request (FOI) made by Nockolds and reported by the Financial Times.

Experts warn that an increasingly litigious society and rising house prices could be driving more people to block probate and try to take a share of or control a deceased relative’s estate.

This hasn’t been helped by the rise of online DIY services that let people prepare their own will online by answering a series of questions without consulting a lawyer.

Without clear instructions, family members could easily disagree about issues such as how you want to be buried and what happens to your hard-earned assets such as your savings and your home once you die.

Here is what to consider.

Make your wishes clear

The best way to avoid family disputes is by writing a will.

This is a legal document that sets out who should manage your assets and liabilities – known as your estate – and who should receive any of your wealth or possessions.

Research by Royal London shows 56% of adults in the UK don’t have a valid will, rising to 79% for 18–34-year-olds.

Without a valid will, your estate falls under the rules of intestacy.

This means that regardless of who you may have chosen, the law dictates the order in which people inherit your estate.

Under the intestacy rules, a spouse or civil partner is automatically recognised as the person who should benefit the most, followed by children.

This may create an issue if you have been living with someone but weren’t married or in a civil partnership.

They may not have any rights to your estate, even if you wanted to leave them your home or other possessions as there would be no document setting this out.

Avoid disputes

Just writing a will online may not be enough, especially for more complex issues.

An automated will writing service may not raise issues to consider such as if you are divorced, remarried or have children from different relationships, all of which could lead to different claims on your estate.

If there are disagreements or parts of the document are unclear, your will could be deemed invalid and moved to the intestacy rules.

Alternatively, your loved ones could end up in court to contest it, which can mean expensive legal fees. There are ways to avoid this before you pass away.

Some DIY services will let you pay extra for a lawyer to check your will, or you could consult a solicitor directly to ensure the document reflects your wishes and situation.

It is also important to review your will if your situation changes.

Royal London research shows six in 10 people haven’t reviewed their will in over a year, with 29% leaving it more than five years.

Plenty could have happened in that period such as a new child or property.

Inheritance tax

Your will is also an important inheritance planning tool.

Currently inheritance tax of 40% is paid on any assets worth more than a nil-rate band threshold of £325,000, plus £175,000 for your main residential property.

There is no inheritance tax between spouses though, so you can reduce the liability of your estate by passing on assets to your husband, wife or civil partner through a will.

You can also leave money to charity through your will and if you donate at least 10% of your estate then the inheritance tax rate drops to 36%.

None of this would be possible without a clear and concise will, saving your loved ones tax, legal fees and heartache.