4th Mar 2016

Supreme Court to rule on dispute between charities and estranged daughter over a Will

A decade long fight between 3 charities and a woman cut out of her mother’s Will is to be heard by the Supreme Court. This is the final Court of Appeal in England and Wales and so the decision they make is final and binding on the parties.

Mrs Jackson made a Will in which she gave her entire estate to three charities. She also left a letter with her Will stating that she did not want her estranged daughter to receive anything from her estate. Mother and daughter had been estranged for 26 years.

However, her daughter, Mrs Ilott, challenged the Will. She did this under the Inheritance (Provision for Families and Dependents) Act 1975 (“the Act”) stating that the Will did not give her “reasonable financial provision”.

The Act provides that certain categories of people can challenge a Will if reasonable financial provision is not made for them. Adult children are entitled to make such a challenge. Previously, the Court would usually only make an award if the adult child was financially dependent on the deceased at the time of death. Whilst there is an argument that a deceased parent has a moral obligation to provide financial provision on their death to their children whatever the circumstances, this argument has rarely achieved success for an adult child.

The estate was worth £500,000 and Mrs Ilott was originally awarded £50,000. She was unsatisfied with this and took the case to the Court of Appeal in July last year. In a decision which has divided opinion amongst lawyers, Mrs Ilott was then awarded a third of the estate – amounting to £164,000.

The Court of Appeal said that provision was made because Mrs Ilott’s annual income was only £7,000 – with a further £13,000 in state benefits – and this level of income was so low that the usual rule that an adult child would be have to financially dependent on the deceased didn’t apply. The amount was calculated so that Mrs Ilott could buy a house for herself and her family, and, crucially, still retain her state benefits.

The Supreme Court has now given the charities permission to appeal the Court of Appeal’s award. The Supreme Court will look at 3 factors:-

  • Was the Court of Appeal wrong to set aside the initial payment to Mrs Ilott of £50,000?
  • Was the Court of Appeal wrong to say that the standard of living of the daughter was sufficient grounds to make an award under the Act?
  • Was the Court of Appeal wrong to structure an award which will enable Mrs Ilott to maintain her state benefits?

The case is fascinating. There are those who feel that it is entirely wrong that the state should support a family where there is adequate money in an estate to do so. Some people also argue that the charities are not acting “charitably” in pursing this litigation and they should settle the matter with the daughter.

On the other hand, there are those who argue that the wishes of someone in a Will are paramount and should not be interfered with (except in limited circumstances where someone was actually financially dependent on the deceased at the time of death). Adult children are not entitled to receive an inheritance and we do have, unlike in some European countries, the freedom to do what we like with our estates. Some people felt that the Court of Appeal award was a step too far in reducing our testamentary freedom.

I await the Supreme Court hearing with much interest. It’s a fact of life that many people do want to disinherit their children from their Will – usually with a very heavy heart – and it’s essential that the Courts make it very clear how they will treat claims from adult children moving forward.

Written by Julie Jewers of Berwins Solicitors.

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