Posted by Mike Muston, Senior Associate
Deadlines for Inheritance Act claims: know your limits
In a recent case the court has refused to grant permission to a widow who attempted to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Dependants) Act 1975 after the expiry of the 6 month time limit. Whilst cases may be brought after the expiry of the time limit, this case has emphasised that the authority for granting permission to do so rests solely with the court.
Claims under the Inheritance Act should be started with the court within 6 months of a Grant being issued by the Probate Registry. This relatively short time limit is designed to avoid prolonged uncertainty when dealing with estates. However, it is well known that commencing court action is expensive and many contested Will actions and inheritance disputes are now resolved by settlement, without a court case beginning. As part of this practice, it has been common for parties to an Inheritance Act claim to agree a “standstill”, which is generally with a view to enabling the parties to have further time to negotiate a settlement at reduced cost, without commencing a court claim.
This issue arose recently in the case of Cowan v Foreman, where a widow, who was dissatisfied with her position following the death of her husband, sought to bring a claim against the estate approximately 17 months out of time. Mr Cowan was a wealthy individual, who had amassed a fortune of approximately £16m by the time of his death. After he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, he sought to make provision for his wife by directing the trustees of his Will to provide generously for his wife for the remainder of her life. At the time of the hearing, Mrs Cowan was reported to be receiving benefits which included the free and continued occupation of her home in the US and an income of approximately £20,000 per month. However, Mrs Cowan’s case appears to have been based upon her concern that she lacked any control over the arrangements, with payments merely being made at the discretion of the trustees.
In reviewing the case, the judge rejected Mrs Cowan’s argument that she should be allowed to bring a late claim simply by virtue of the agreement reached with the defendants. Instead, the judge reaffirmed the position that only the court had the authority to grant an extension. This involved the judge analysing factors including whether the delay was reasonable and whether Mrs Cowan’s claim was likely to succeed. In the judge’s view, Mrs Cowan’s claim did not satisfy the relevant tests and she was refused permission to take her case further.
There is perhaps some sympathy to be had for Mrs Cowan, in circumstances where “standstill” agreements have been common practice amongst solicitors for many years – with their purpose not being to flout the rules, but to save costs for the parties involved. However, this case serves as an important reminder that, whatever might be agreed between the parties, it will only be possible to advance a claim after the period of 6 months if permission is granted by the court. The case also suggests that, even for spouses (who are often treated more generously in these claims), simply being unhappy about being a beneficiary of a discretionary trust will not, on its own, be sufficient to mount a claim, unless there is some evidence that the provision to be received is likely to be unreasonable.
If you believe you may have a claim against an estate, it is important that you seek legal advice as soon as possible. You can seek a free initial opinion from our Contested Wills, Trusts & Inheritance Disputes team by contacting
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