The final twist in a long-running saga over a contested Will reaffirms the principle that people making a Will should be free to choose who will benefit when they die. But where does this leave people who believe they have a genuine claim on an estate? Harrison Drury’s contentious probate expert Ed Stanley summarises the case and what it means for those wishing to bring a claim.
What’s happened in this case?
Three animal charities have won a case at the Supreme Court against a woman cut out of her mother’s £500,000 Will.
Heather Ilott’s mother Melita Jackson left most of her estate to charities but not a penny to her estranged daughter when she died in 2004.
Mrs Ilott was awarded £50,000 from the estate by a judge in 2007, which was tripled on appeal in 2015. We covered the full background to the case and the 2015 appeal decision in one of our previous blogs.
However, the charities challenged the increase, saying people should be free to choose beneficiaries, and the court agreed Mrs Ilott should receive only the original amount. It is the first contested estate case to go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Why was Mrs Ilott allowed to challenge her mother’s wishes in the first place?
Mrs Ilott brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. Under the Act, adult children can make a claim in circumstances where they have been excluded from a Will or have not had ‘reasonable provision’ made for them, either by the Will or by intestacy.
This is what led to the award being increased to £164,000 by the Court of Appeal in 2015 as essentially the judges agreed with her argument that reasonable provision had still not been made.
Supreme Court judges were told that the appeal against that increase had been brought by the animal charities (at whose expense the increased award had been made) “largely on principle” because of the possible impact on other cases.
Why has the Supreme Court overturned the Court of Appeal decision?
The law surrounding this decision is too complex to summarise in full here. To offer a simple explanation, the animal charities successfully argued that the Court of Appeal judges “fell into error” when deciding to increase the maintenance payout.
In the summary of the judgment, the Supreme Court judges agreed that the district judge who made the original award of £50,000 was entitled to consider the nature of the relationship between Mrs Jackson and Mrs Ilott in reaching his conclusion.
The Supreme Court also ruled that the Court of Appeal’s view that the original award was of little or no value to Mrs Ilott was unjustified. A substantial part of the award could be spent on replacing old and worn out household equipment which the family had previously been unable to afford. This fell within the “provision of maintenance of daily living” and would not jeopardise her entitlement to benefits.
The judgment concludes that the Court of Appeal’s order gave little weight to Mrs Jackson’s very clear wishes and the long period of estrangement from her daughter. The Court of Appeal’s justification for this approach was that the charities had little expectation of benefit.
However, the Supreme Court said this approach should be treated with caution, given the importance of testamentary bequests for charities, and because the testator’s chosen beneficiaries, whether relatives, charities or otherwise, do not need to justify their claim either by need or expectation.
So, this ruling means I can leave my estate to whomever I want?
While not quite as simple as that, it does strengthen that overarching principle. And an adult child’s claims for reasonable financial provision is limited to what it would be reasonable for them to receive for their maintenance only. Maintenance goes beyond mere subsistence level but does not extend to anything which the adult child might desire.
However, it must be remembered this case hasn’t changed any laws. People left out of Wills may still be afforded provision under the 1975 Act. The most important thing this case demonstrates is that it’s vital to have a Will that sets out your wishes very clearly. You should also be able to show that in making a Will you have given proper regard to those who could have a claim against the estate.
Does this mean I can’t challenge a Will if I’m left out of it?
No, not at all. Each case turns on its own facts and so if you have been left out of a Will, or if insufficient provision has been made for you by a Will, or intestacy rules, then you should seek immediate advice on whether you qualify as a claimant under the 1975 Act and if there are merits in such a claim.
If there is such a claim then the executors under the Will, or those appointed under an intestacy, will be notified and the administration of the estate will be suspended, other than to preserve estate assets pending the resolution of the claim.
The claim is not against the estate but against the beneficiaries under the Will or intestacy as it is their share that will be diminished if the claim is successful.
Information concerning the estate needs to be obtained and the executors (even though they may be beneficiaries) must co-operate in disclosing information to genuine claimants. The law encourages parties to resolve their differences without litigation and only as a last resort should a claim be brought in the courts.
Finally, it is not just adult children who are able to bring claims under the 1975 Act. There a number of prescribed categories of claimants including spouses, co-habitees of more than two years, young children and anyone else being maintained by the deceased.
Ed Stanley is Head of Contentious Probate at Harrison Drury and has successfully brought claims for people who feel they have been unjustly left out of a Will. He has also successfully defended such claims. For further advice on contesting a Will or making a claim against an estate, contact Ed Stanley on 01772 258321.