A long-standing court battle between a number of charities and a daughter who had been left out of her mother’s Will has finally concluded, following a judgment of the Supreme Court which overturned the Court of Appeal’s previous decision and re-instated the original Judge’s decision.
Some 13 years after the Deceased’s death and 10 years since the original decision, it appears that the Supreme Court have provided some guidance as to how these types of claims should be dealt with but the nature of these types of case remain subject to a wide degree of judicial discretion. This is the first time a case under this act has been considered by the highest court on England and Wales
What was the case about?
In summary, Heather Ilott issued a claim against her mother’s Estate under an Act called the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act (1975). This allows certain people, including spouses, co-habitants and children to make a claim against an Estate of a deceased person if they believe that they do not receive “reasonable financial provision” under that person’s Will or if the rules of intestacy (those being the rules that govern how an estate is distributed where there is no Will).
Melita Jackson died in 2004. She left a Will leaving her entire estate, which was valued at approx £486,000 to three charities. She had one daughter, Heather Ilott who she omitted from her Will. They had been estranged since 1978 when Heather left home aged 17 to live with her boyfriend.
The daughter had 5 children, had some debt, lived in rented accommodation and was reliant on state benefits. She therefore issued a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act (1975) against her mother’s estate.
The First Proceedings
The daughter’s claim was opposed by the charities and in 2007 the matter was dealt with by way of a court trial. The District Judge hearing the case awarded the daughter a lump sum of £50,000 as “reasonable provision”
Both parties appealed that decision. The Charities appealed primarily on the basis that because the daughter was an adult and was not being maintained by her mother, there was no obligation on the estate to make provision for her.
The daughter’s appeal was in relation to the amount of the award. Her main point of argument was that, because of her financial position, an award of £50,000 would simply result in her living off the award until she became entitled to benefits once again. She therefore requested a lump sum sufficient to enable her to buy her council property.
In 2009, the Court allowed the Charities appeal but didn’t consider the amount of the award. In other words, the award to Heather was overturned.
The “Second” Appeal
In 2015, the Court of Appeal allowed the daughter’s appeal on the basis that the Court should not have readily interfered with the original judge’s decision without good reason.
The “Third” Appeal
In 2015, the Court of Appeal allowed the daughter’s appeal that the amount allowed was too low and awarded her:
- A lump sum of £143,000 (the cost of buying her home)
- An additional amount to cover the costs of purchasing the property
- An option to take up to a further £20,000 should she choose to do so to protect her benefits.
This decision was made on the basis that impact of the daughter’s benefits (and the cost to the taxpayer) should have been taken into account.
The charities appealed this decision to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court allowed the charities appeal and re-instated the ORIGINAL decision to award the daughter £50,000 which had been made in 2007!
As mentioned above, it is the first case under the Inheritance Act to be considered by the Supreme Court and their must be followed by all other courts in the country when faced with similar claims.
What Does the Guidance Say?
The guidance is not as far reaching as some would have hoped and, indeed, Lady Hale when delivering the judgment said,
“I have written this judgment only to demonstrate what, in my view, is the unsatisfactory state of the present law”
However, a few principles to emerge are that:
- A deceased’s person’s wishes should be given weight when considering such claims. This had not previously been confirmed as the Act itself does not require them to be taken into account.
- As a claim by anybody other than a spouse is limited as to what is required for their maintenance, any such claim should ordinarily require both a financial need and a moral obligation or claim.
- The re-instatement of the original award demonstrates the Court’s long-held principles that an original judge’s decision should not be interfered with readily and should only be overturned in exceptional circumstances.
- The Court found that when considering the decision, there was a range of possible outcomes, all of which it would have been reasonable for a Judge to make.
What Does This Mean?
Claims of this type remain subject to a wide degree of judicial discretion, meaning that a judge hearing any such case could come to a number of conclusions which could all be “correct”
The case has re-emphasised that this type of case is extremely complex and it is therefore vitally important that if considering bringing any such claim, advice should be sought as soon as possible from a specialist solicitor. Many law firms have solicitors who practice in a number of areas. At Taylor&Emmet we have a dedicated team of solicitors who practice EXCLUSIVELY in this area of law and are therefore able to provide you with more technical and robust advice than most other law firms.
If you have any queries about this article or any questions or have a concern regarding an Estate, Will or Trust our team are able to help. Please call Alex Watkinson on 0114 218 4126 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for assistance.