The 2015 Court of Appeal decision in Ilott v Mitson excited much interest. Today (15 March 2017) the Supreme Court gave judgment on the Charities’ Appeal
The base legal position
In English law a Testator remains free to leave their Estate as they see fit, unlike in many European countries where the law requires that the family inherit. An English Testator wishing to exclude a family member from inheriting should leave a clear note of their wishes and reasoning lest a claim is subsequently brought against the Estate.
How Wills can be contested
The vehicle by which contested Wills claims can be brought is through the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. The Act lays down classes of potential Claimant including children. All Claimants apart from a surviving spouse must prove the Will (or intestacy for that matter) fails to make reasonable provision for their maintenance. Often there are competing Claimants and the Court is required by statute to take into account specific factors including the needs and resources of any other beneficiaries. The Court has to carry out a balancing act.
The 2015 Appeal Court Decision
In Mrs Ilott’s case, her mother Mrs Jackson had decided to leave her Estate of £500,000 to three animal charities. Mrs Jackson had left a note explaining why she had cut out her daughter and instructing her executors to contest any claim brought by her estranged daughter. In 1978 Mrs Ilott had left the family home at 17 to elope with her future husband. The final Will cutting out Mrs Ilott was made in 2002 dividing the Estate between the RSPCA, RSPB and Blue Cross. Mrs Ilott was reliant on state benefits and living in a Housing Association property.
At first instance Mrs Ilott was awarded £50,000 from the Estate. The Court of Appeal increased the award to £164,000 to save her from a life on the breadline and enable her to buy the house in which she lived. The Court was influenced by the Testator’s limited association with the charities and Mrs Ilott’s circumstances of having five children, no pension and being reliant on state benefits. The Will was described as unreasonable, capricious and harsh.
An adult child wishing to bring a claim must still establish the Will fails to make reasonable provision for their maintenance and unless living in impoverished circumstances with no competing Claimants such as a surviving spouse, the Ilott case does not provide much comfort.
See Sarah’s recent article What can be done for those left out of a Will or on Intestacy for more information on the position where people may wish to contest a Will, which also covers the complexity of when couples are cohabiting and where there has been more than one relationship.
On 2 March 2016, the three charities were granted permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. The issues to be determined are whether:
- the Court of Appeal was wrong to set aside the award made by the court of first instance (£50,000)
- the appeal judges were wrong in their approach to the maintenance standard under the 1975 Act, or wrong to structure the award so as to allow Mrs Ilott to retain her state benefits.
The 2017 Supreme Court Decision
On 15 March 2017, the Supreme Court gave its judgment and unanimously allowed the charities’ appeal. The first instance award of £50,000 was reinstated. The judgment emphasises the importance of limiting awards to adult children to ‘maintenance’. The claimant’s needs will not necessarily be the measure of any award. If (as in Ilott) the parties are estranged, that will be taken into account. Claims by adult children therefore continue to be fraught with difficulty.
Disclaimer: While we do all that is possible in terms of ensuring its accuracy, this blog contains general information only. Nothing in these pages constitutes legal advice. You need to consult a suitably qualified lawyer from the firm on any specific legal problem or matter.
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