Lady JusticeDavid Ebener/DPA/Press Association Images

Betty Harris, a widow from Piper Point in Sydney, Australia, caused outrage and shock within her family when she died at the age of 95. When the family opened her will they discovered that she had left her entire estate to a neighbour who had been kind in her later years.

The family immediately launched a court case, during which it emerged why Harris had acted the way she did.


The case

According to Sydney's Daily Telegraph, Harris left her entire £8.18 million estate to her neighbour Beatrice Gray, a wealthy academic who had helped her by buying groceries and taking the rubbish out.

Harris' husband had died and she had no children: she was not speaking to most of her nieces and nephews, and told hospital staff in 2005 that she hadn't spoken to them in 13 years.

She had previously left the money to her family, but she revoked that particular will after hearing that her niece, Caralie Hart, wanted to put her into a nursing home and appoint a legal guardian to control her finances.

Further legal moves from her family meant that Harris lost control of her estate, and even had to borrow money from her neighbour - who helped her pay her bills and deal with many of the more complex household chores.

After she died, Hart challenged the will in the New South Wales Supreme Court. She argued that when Harris had changed the will she hadn't been in control of her mental faculties.

The court heard arguments that Harris had repeatedly complained about her family prior to her death, and how they all wanted her money. She had told people that she was leaving the money to her neighbour instead, because it wasn't being taken for granted and it would be appreciated.

The Judge ruled that although Harris had 'some degree of cognitive impairment', she was still capable of signing a will.

Rows

The sad thing about inheritance rows is that they destroy relationships, cost a small fortune, and could be avoidable.

The expense is astonishing. Earlier this month when Julia Hawes, Peter Burgess and Libby Burgess appeared at the High Court in the UK, arguing over a £120,000 estate left by their mother, the judge warned that there was every chance that the fight itself would erode the entire estate.

It is also intensely damaging. In South Africa a family feud over the assets left by a businessman to his family raged for years, when a court warned them two weeks ago: "The record of proceedings reveals the hatred with which the protagonists have sought to harm and denigrate one another, thereby dishonouring the memory of their father, who spent a lifetime providing for them and building up the assets that they are unwilling or unable to divide equitably among themselves."

What can you do?

The question is how to avoid disagreements. The first essential point is that you have to make a will, otherwise you have no control over your estate. According to Standard Life six out of ten Brits don't currently have a Will, including a quarter of those aged 65 and over, so they need to take action as a matter of urgency.

The second point is to talk to everyone who is affected before you write a will. It's essential that they understand what you are doing and why. It also pays to put any reason for any controversial decision in writing, so there can be no argument as to whether you have a made a mistake.

In the end, money and death do strange things to families: there's no stopping a family feud after you have gone if the family members are determined enough. All you can do is make your wishes clear, and hope that your family have enough respect for you to stick by them.

But what do you think? Why do families fight so much over inheritance? Let us know in the comments.



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