scales of justiceClara Molden/PA

The judge described it as a 'calamity for this family' after it emerged that the three adult children of Daphne Burgess had spent more money fighting over her will than she had actually left in the first place.

But how could this happen, and what can we learn from it?


The case

Daphne Burgess died four years ago at the age of 80, leaving £200,000 to her daughters, Julia Hawes and Libby Burgess. Her son, Peter, was written out of the will two years earlier. At the time Daphne was living in a bungalow bought by him, and intended to add value to the property instead.

Julia had been with her mother when she made the will and insisted she had the mental capability to do so, but Libby and Peter disagreed as she was suffering from dementia.

According to the Telegraph, the matter came to court two years ago, when the court sided with Libby and Peter, so Julia went to the Court of Appeal to try to reverse the decision.

The hearing took six days, and saw 26 witnesses. In the end the judge ordered that the money be split three ways, and that Julia should pay the legal costs.

However, he highlighted that the verdict was beside the point. He said it reminded him of a famous case in the Charles Dickens novel, Bleak House, where the family spent every penny of their inheritance on legal battles.

According to the Daily Mail, he also said: "The cost of contesting Mrs Burgess's will is a calamity for this family in every way. Even worse are the human consequences for a once close-knit and loving family." He said that family relationships were "likely to be beyond repair".

What we can learn

This is not the first time a family has been split over inheritance. According to Engage Mutual, 17% of people have already fallen out over a will of some kind. But it goes to show three vital lessons we could all do with taking on board if we are to avoid an inheritance drama.

1) Talk.

The first step of sorting out a will isn't when you go to a solicitor: it's when you sit down with your loved ones and tell them what you plan to do. At this point you can make all your decisions clear - from why you might leave more to one sibling, to the fact you'd like to take advantage of some equity release. Any objections can then be discussed and agreed long before the lawyer appears.

According to NS&I, 36% of the population whose parents are still alive do not know if their parents have a will, or how their parents plan to distribute their estate. This is a recipe for disaster.

2) Dot the is and cross the ts.

Make sure you do everything properly. There are all sorts of ways that people get wills struck out - from arguing you were under undue influence, to arguing that it wasn't witnessed correctly. You need to make sure you do everything by the book, so that if an argument emerges after your death, you stand the best possible chance of having your wishes carried out.

There's a strong argument for using an expert. A survey by Standard Life found that 48% of people consider the internet as their first port of call when it comes to estate planning, but Julie Hutchison, head of estate planning at Standard Life, points out:"Due to the complications and seriousness of drawing up a Will or dealing with inheritance tax, any DIY option can be very risky."

3) Don't do anything rash.

Wills and inheritance often become tools for taking revenge on family members or wielding power over them, but this is destructive and dangerous. According to Engage Mutual, over 3.5 million people in the UK have changed their will in the last two years - and the most common reason is family arguments.

A quarter of people are already anticipating upset about a decision they have made about their will, with 10% feeling beneficiaries may expect more. Friction caused by leaving assets to friends rather than family is anticipated by 15%.

The question you have to ask yourself is whether there's anything you can do about this now. Have you acted rashly and want to do something more equal? Can you gain anything from discussing the issue? Should you make it clear who you are giving money to and why before your death?

Because while no death is easy for a family - it shouldn't have to mean the end of family life as we know it.