Can you be confident your assets will go to where you want them to when you die?04-04-2017
Our senior lawyer Chris Hutchinson looks at a recent case that threatened to throw this fundamental right into question.
Heather Ilott’s dispute over her estranged mother Melita Jackson’s decision to write her out of her Will, has rumbled on since 2004, when the elder woman died at the age of 70.
Ms Jackson decided to leave her worldly goods to a range of animal charities including the Blue Cross and the RSPB. However, her daughter, who had been estranged from her for 26 years, challenged her choice all the way to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court.
Mrs Ilott’s mother rejected her when she left home in 1978, at the age of 17, to live with her boyfriend Nicholas Ilott, who she went on to marry.
15 March – a momentous judgement day
This is the first time the Supreme Court has had to consider a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. And a different judgement could have had implications for basic freedom of choice, not to mention the hundreds of charities that rely on the donations they receive through inheritances like this one.
The case hinged on to what extent an adult child, who had deliberately not been left anything in her mother’s Will, should be awarded ‘reasonable financial provision for maintenance’.
It is particularly pivotal because, in this country, you have the right to leave your estate to whoever you wish, subject to any claim that may be established under the 1975 Act. This is unlike the law of many other countries, often descended from Roman law, where certain assets have to pass to direct descendants, and Wills only deal with the rest of a person’s estate.
Although claims made on behalf of young or disabled children are generally looked on favourably by the courts, the same is not true for an adult descendent when their parent has made it quite plain they don’t want them to inherit. After all, why should they not be allowed to do whatever they want with the assets they have amassed in their lifetime?
A very public stand-off
This case attracted attention from the first decision made by a District Judge, who awarded the claimant £50,000 out of a net estate of approximately £500,000, ruling that her mother had acted in an ‘unreasonable, capricious and harsh’ way by excluding Mrs Ilott. The Court of Appeal subsequently substantially increased that provision, deciding that the sum was insufficient, and awarded £143,000 for a house purchase and £20,000 for living costs. However, ultimately, the Supreme Court gave charities some cause for relief again when they reverted back to the District Judge’s award.
The decision means 50-year-old Mrs Ilott, who has five children and, at the time of her claim, had no pension and was reliant on state benefits, will receive £50,000 rather than £163,000 from the estate.
The charities took their case to the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeal’s decision to substantially increase the award in favour of Mrs Ilott – because of fears that it could open the floodgates to claims by disappointed adult children in similar situations.
However, the charities’ victory on this occasion doesn’t completely rule out the possibility of further claims of this nature. Perhaps the most telling comments made about the current legal position came from Deputy President of the Supreme Court Lady Hale, after the judgment had been given. She referred to the unsatisfactory state of the law in that the 1975 Act gives the court absolutely no guidance as to the factors to be taken into account when it has to decide whether an adult child is deserving or undeserving of reasonable maintenance.
So uncertainty, unfortunately, remains and could raise its head again, in future claims such as this.
While this ruling has raised some questions about inheritance within families in some very specific situations, it is important to make a Will to ensure your wishes are honoured when you are no longer around.