March 15, 2017

Has contesting a Will for an adult child become more difficult?

The Supreme Court has today (15 March 2017) ruled on the long running case of Ilott v Mitson, involving Heather Ilott’s claim for financial provision from the estate of her late mother, Melita Jackson. Whilst the Court of Appeal had increased Mrs Ilott’s award to approximately £160,000, the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled to reduce Heather Ilott’s award back to the £50,000 she was granted following the initial judgment back in 2007.

The facts

Mrs Ilott brought the case after her estranged mother, Mrs Jackson, decided that she did not want to leave her daughter any of her near £500,000 estate. Instead, Mrs Jackson left her estate to three well-known animal welfare charities. As a result, Mrs Ilott commenced a claim against her mother’s estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 seeking financial provision.

In support of her claim, Mrs Ilott put evidence before the court that she and her family were struggling to make a living on state benefits.

The Supreme Court’s decision

In the previous decision from the Court of Appeal, it was decided that Mrs Ilott should be awarded a sum of approximately £140,000 to buy her housing association home, together with a further £20,000 to help support her family.

However, the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled to overturn this decision, believing that the original award of £50,000 was sufficient to provide for her maintenance.

The Supreme Court has found that the wishes of the deceased person remain a matter of relevance when considering these claims and the Court appears to have placed weight on the fact that Heather Ilott was not a dependant child, but a child who had been estranged from her mother for some 26 years.

The Supreme Court also declared that the original judge had considered Heather Ilott’s needs and the lump sum of £50,000 had not ignored the fact that she was receiving state benefits. It was explained that the original judge had made his award with reference to the state benefits that Heather Ilott was receiving and she could have used the funds to purchase necessary household items to improve her living circumstances.

The Supreme Court has also indicated that the award of a sum sufficient to purchase a house will not usually be appropriate, overruling the decision of the Court of Appeal on this issue. It was suggested that purchasing a property, which will increase in value over time, went beyond merely providing for a person’s maintenance.

What does this mean for adult children contesting a Will under the Inheritance Act ?

Whilst it will not necessarily be more difficult for adult children to bring claims, it does seem that the value of potential claims may be more limited than previously anticipated, as the court is now more likely to take a strict approach in relation to the claimant’s need for maintenance. This decision may not only have an impact upon adult children, but all claimants seeking an award to meet their need for maintenance.

It also appears that the court may now take more account of the reasons why a child was excluded from a person’s Will and, if there has been a period of estrangement, then this factor may way more heavily.

Present law criticised

Finally, Lady Justice Hale also commented on the “unsatisfactory state of the present law” in relation to Inheritance Act claims, with the law being unclear as to when an adult child is deserving or underserving of an award. What this case makes clear is that this remains a complicated area of law and if this becomes relevant when dealing with an estate or when making a Will, legal advice should be obtained.

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