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Charities win in the Supreme Court after 10 year Will dispute

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No-fault divorce suffers another setback as Supreme Court rejects latest appeal

The Supreme Court yesterday handed down judgment in the case of Ilott v Mitson 2017 [USC] 17, which, appears to now be the end of the line for this long running inheritance dispute case that began with a County Court decision in 2007.

The controversial County Court judgment in 2007 saw Heather Ilott awarded the sum of £50,000 from her estranged late mother’s estate, which had been valued at around £486,000. This was a significant departure from the court’s approach in claims by adult children under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, which allows people who were either relatives of, or dependent upon, the deceased, to bring a claim for reasonable financial provision from their estate. Historically, adult non-dependent children, were rarely successful unless they had some form of dependency on the deceased, or a disability providing a moral obligation to provide for them.

Heather Ilott, had fallen out with her mother Melita Jackson after leaving home when she was just 17 years old, and had little contact with her thereafter.  They had been estranged for around 26 years.  In her Will, Mrs Jackson had left everything to various charities, and completely excluded her daughter.  Heather issued her claim for provision under the act, telling the court that she had five children, and was of very limited means, living largely on benefits, and in a housing association home. 

The charities appealed the original County Court decision in the High Court, trying to argue that Heather should not be awarded anything from the estate, as she was a non-dependant adult child. The appeal was dismissed by the High Court.

In 2011, the case was brought before the Court of Appeal, and Heather cross-appealed, arguing that the amount of her award was too low, and was still not reasonable financial provision. The Court of Appeal upheld the District Judge’s decision that Heather was entitled to bring a claim under the act and again dismissed the appeal.

The case was then referred back to the High Court, to deal with Heather’s appeal against the amount that she was awarded, and in 2014, the High Court upheld the County Court’s original award of £50,000. The High Court was unwilling to interfere with the discretion of the original County Court Judge to make an award. 

Heather appealed yet again, bringing the case back before the Court of Appeal in 2015, and the court controversially increased her award from £50,000 to £164,000, equating to around 1/3 of the net estate. 

The charities appealed this decision in December 2016, in the Supreme Court, who yesterday handed down their judgment, granting the appeal, and restoring the original County Court award of £50,000. The Supreme Court was critical of the Court of Appeal’s judgment, and many of the judges in fact commented that it would likely have been appropriate that Heather Ilott be awarded nothing at the County Court level, however as they were not being asked to consider this original decision, the judgment was simply restored.

Along the way, the courts have been very clear that the specific circumstances of this case are what has led any award, namely the fact that the only other beneficiaries were charities rather than individuals; the charities were not ones that the deceased had any connection to during her lifetime; and Heather’s means were so limited, that it was reasonable for her to be provided for. 

As a solicitor specialising in contested Wills and estates cases, and member of the Association of Contentious Trusts and Probate Specialists (ACTAPS), this decision is a very interesting one.  It shows that clearer guidance is required, and perhaps amendments to the Act itself, to clarify the circumstances, if any, under which an adult child can bring a claim, and to what extent.

If you think you may have a similar claim, it is important that you seek specialist legal advice as early as possible. The time limit for bringing this type of claim is very short, and you could miss out if you wait too long.

For a fixed fee of £150, you can have a 30 minute appointment with myself, either on the telephone, or face to face, depending on your preference.  We will take some details from you before the appointment, and I will then discuss your case with you, and what your options are.  If your case is something that we can then help you further with, we can then discuss your funding options with you.  For cases like this, we can sometimes consider a “no win no fee” agreement, depending on the circumstances of your case.