Inheritance dispute – Ilot -v- Mitson… the saga continues …
Supreme Court hears landmark appeal in inheritance dispute claim
Ilott (Respondent) v The Blue Cross and Others (Appellants)
Inheritance disputes can often be unpleasant, especially when they rumble on for a significant period of time. On 12 December 2016, the Supreme Court heard a landmark appeal relating to the Ilot -v- Mitson inheritance dispute that could change the law and potentially make it easier for adult children to challenge their parent’s Will if they do not believe reasonable provision has been left for them.
Melita Jackson left her estate (worth in the region of half a million pounds) to three charities, RSPCA, RPSBA and the Blue Cross. Her husband had died many years before and she had one daughter, Heather Ilott, with whom it is understood her relationship had broken down when Ilott left home to live with her future Husband, at the age of 17. Prior to her death, Ms Jackson had specifically stipulated that she did not wish her daughter to be awarded any of her estate and should this be challenged in Court, it should be fought.
In 2007, Ms Ilott raised an inheritance dispute. She brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provisions for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 claiming her Mother had not made reasonable provision for her. At the initial hearing, although the Court held that both mother and daughter were responsible for the breakdown of their relationship, ultimately it held that Ms Jackson had acted in a “unreasonable, capricious and harsh way” towards her daughter by not catering adequately for her in terms of her inheritance. Consequently, DJ Million made an award in Ms Ilott’s favour of £50,000. Ms Ilott challenged this initial ruling and in July 2015, the Court of Appeal ruled that Ms Ilott was entitled to £143,000 to enable her to purchase her Housing Association home, reasonable costs of the sale and a further £20,000 in cash to ensure that Mrs Ilott could continue claiming state benefits. The three charities are now appealing this award and seeking to establish clarity over the issue of testamentary freedom for charities and donors.
The case represents the first time the Supreme Court have been asked to consider the provisions of The Inheritance (Provisions for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, which forms on a key planks of a significant number of inheritance disputes. This stipulates that a parent’s will must make “reasonable financial provision” for the “maintenance” of a child. The outcome of the case was surprising as Ms Jackson and Ms Illot had been estranged for 26 years and Ms Illot had been financial independent of her Mother for over two decades. Prior to Ilott’s initial success in this case, it was generally accepted that adult children would not be successful in an inheritance dispute challenge under a 1975 Act claim, unless they are suffering from a disability or if the deceased had some other moral obligation to support.
If the Supreme Court finds in favour of Mrs Ilott, it will potentially open the floodgates for a wave of inheritance dispute claims by disinherited children who will attempt to claw back money left to others. The judgement is likely to have the greatest effect on charities and donors, who often benefit where a will does not include provisions for the deceased’s children. An important part of the charities’ case is that they should not be considered any less deserving than other types of beneficiary and that greater certainty as to the Court’s use of its powers would benefit not only the charities involved, but the charity sector as a whole and the public.
The Supreme Court will also consider whether the Court of Appeal was wrong to structure the award in a way that allowed Ms Ilott to continue claiming state benefits and whether it erred in its approach to the “maintenance standard” in the 1975 Act.
Whatever the outcome of this hearing, there is no doubt that lawyers now need to be aware and make sure their clients are aware that wills can often be contested and despite, testamentary freedom being ones of the most well-established principles in English law, the Courts have shown that they do have the power to dissent from this principle under the 1975 Act. It is, therefore, more important than ever that lawyers advise their clients on an inheritance dispute, that they appreciate these significant developments and that their client’s last will is robust and clear, perhaps with an additional detailed letter of wishes explaining why they omitted certain relatives and expectant beneficiaries.
The judgement is not expected until the new year, possibly in Spring.