The Court of Appeal has today handed down a very interesting decision, which may open the gates for many people to contest their parents’ Wills and estates.
Heather Ilott, aged 50, of Great Munden, Hertfordshire, fell out with her mother Melita Jackson after leaving home when she was just 17 years old. Mrs Jackson died at the age of 70 in 2004, and her estate is thought to be worth in the region of £486,000. In her Will, Mrs Jackson had disinherited her daughter Heather, explaining in a separate letter of wishes that she did not want her to have anything, as Heather had walked out of her home in 1978 to live with her boyfriend. Instead, Heather’s mother left everything to various charities including RSPCA, RSPB and the Blue Cross animal welfare charity.
Heather, who has five children, lives largely on benefits in a housing association home. She therefore brought a claim to challenge her mother’s Will under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. These claims are often referred to as either Inheritance Act claims, or dependency claims. This Act allows people who were dependant upon the deceased, to bring a claim for reasonable financial provision, from a person’s estate, where they can show that they have not been sufficiently provided for.
In August 2007, a district judge awarded Heather £50,000 from her mother’s estate. Heather then appealed the amount that she was awarded, hoping to obtain a much higher sum. The Charities, who were the defendants in the case, appealed the decision to award her anything at all. Both these appeals were dealt with by the High Court in October 2009, and the High Court overturned the original judgment, finding that Heather should not be entitled to inherit anything.
In the past, the Courts have taken the view that adult children, who were not financially dependant upon their parents, and were not suffering from any kind of disability or impairment, should not be awarded anything under an Inheritance Act claim. The Courts are usually very reluctant to interfere with someone’s right to leave their estate to whomever they wish, providing that they have capacity to do so, or providing that any dependants were sufficiently provided for. Claims by non-dependant adult children have therefore rarely been successful in the past.
Today, the Court of Appeal took an entirely different approach. Mrs Justice Black, Sir Nicholas Wall and Lady Justice Arden, said it had been "unreasonable" of Mrs Jackson to cut her daughter out of her will in favour of charities to which she had no prior connection. They did not make a decision as to the amount that Heather will now be entitled to, but she is now able to return to the High Court for a bigger payout from her mother's estate.
The charities argued that Heather and her husband made a number of "lifestyle choices" which had left them in financial difficulty, and that they had lived completely independently of Mrs Jackson for 26 years. It was therefore unreasonable to now expect maintenance, and went against the previous approach of the Courts in similar cases.
The Court of Appeal commented that each case has to be decided on its own facts, and just because one person’s claim is unsuccessful, does not mean everyone’s should be, and vice versa.
As a solicitor specialising in contested Wills and estates cases, this decision by the Court of Appeal is a very interesting one. Whilst it might appear to have created uncertainty about a person's right to leave money as they wish, it also creates opportunities for those people who have been treated unfairly by their parents. In particular, if the estate is going tog a charity or similar organisation, and not another family member, it would appear that the Court is willing to make decisions in their favour.
It is unclear whether the charities will appeal this decision again to the Supreme Court, but given its wide reaching implications, it is my feeling that they will. Watch this space.
If you are in any doubt as to whether you may be able to bring a claim, then contact our specialist litigation team who deal with Inheritance Disputes on 01942 777777. If you are of limited financial means, you may even be entitled to Legal Aid, and we can advise you of this quickly over the phone.