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Wills don't always reflect wishes

Date

Jane Lee

People are more likely to be taken advantage of when making their wills because they are living longer and leaving more money, a former judge says.

Philip Cummins, chairman of the Victorian Law Reform Commission, said people lived about 25 years longer than a century ago, with average life expectancy now 83 for men and 85 for women.

The former Supreme Court judge said medical problems such as dementia potentially affected people's ability to make wills that reflected their wishes.

''We're living into a period where we might need more guidance and help,'' the judge said. ''Critical issues are the competence to make a will and undue influence over people making the will.''

State Attorney-General Robert Clark has asked the commission to review the state's succession laws to better protect the elderly against undue influence. Public submissions to the review are open until March 28.

Judge Cummins said growth in ''blended families'' also made legal battles over estates more complicated: ''There are more people wanting a slice of the cake and there's more money to go around.''

Sue Hendy, chief executive of the Council on the Ageing Victoria, agreed, saying children of seniors often coerced them to change their wills and to give them money before they died.

''We've got people who have signed over their house before they're dead and aren't being looked after particularly well [in exchange],'' Ms Hendy said.

''It's very hard for parents not to trust their children and not to follow their instincts. Don't sign anything without getting advice from someone other than the family member who's putting it under you.''

She said same-sex partners were also emerging as potential claimants, with same-sex relationships recognised under law only in recent years.

The commission is also considering whether to wind back a law that allows anyone in Victoria to contest a will if they can show the court the deceased had a responsibility to provide for them. This is unlike the situation in other states, where challenges are limited to close blood relatives of the deceased. ''One argument is that if you leave it open, everyone can try and climb on board. [But] if you close it off there might be genuine cases of people who really should have been looked after and weren't blood relatives,'' the judge said.

Thirty-six thousand people die in Victoria every year, with about 1400 dying owning property without a valid will.

The Council on the Ageing Victoria's guide to wills is at seniorsrights.org.au

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