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Home » Latest News » Landmark inheritance ruling still raises questions over needs

Landmark inheritance ruling still raises questions over needs

Landmark inheritance ruling still raises questions over needs
“ It is now clear as a result of this case that making reasonable provision for ‘maintenance’ does not amount to providing everything the applicant reasonably needs, and that an applicant’s needs will not necessarily be the measure of an award under the Act. ”

Adult children disinherited by a parent will find it more difficult to mount a legal challenge as a result of a landmark decision by the Supreme Court. But specialist lawyers at Bridge McFarland warn that the ruling in favour of charities over an estranged child also prompted calls for a review, which could bring much-needed clarification.

Jacqui Johnson, an authority at Bridge McFarland in matters including wills, inheritance tax planning and disputed probates, says questions still arise after the decision, which was widely publicised.

The case involved Heather Ilott who was rejected by her mother in 1978 when she left home at the age of 17 to live with her boyfriend, Nicholas Ilott. They later married, are still together and have five children. But Melita Jackson never forgave her daughter. By the time of her death in 2004 at the age of 70, Mrs Jackson had made a will leaving her entire estate of £500,000 to the Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

In 2007, the county court awarded Mrs Ilott £50,000 on the grounds that her mother had acted in an “unreasonable, capricious and harsh” way towards her. Both the charities and Mrs Ilott challenged the award and in 2011 the Court of Appeal increased it to £143,000 for a house purchase plus £20,000 for living costs. But the charities argued that the appeal judges “fell into error” in deciding to increase the payout. The Supreme Court panel agreed, overturned the ruling and restored the original sum of £50,000.

The judges had heard that Mrs Ilott, who is in her 50s, has no pension and receives state benefits. She works as a bookkeeper for her husband, an actor who has intermittent work. Her appeal was the first under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 to go to the Supreme Court. The Act confers the right on a child of a deceased parent to apply for an order if a will does not make reasonable provision for their maintenance. It is normally used to benefit children or relatives who were dependent on the deceased, rather than someone in Mrs Ilott’s position – an adult and financially independent from her mother when she made the claim.

The judges acknowledged the needs demonstrated by Mrs Ilott but decided they were outweighed by the good works that the charities would do with the money, and by the fact that the charities were the chosen beneficiaries of Mrs Jackson and did not have to justify a claim on the basis of need. The Supreme Court emphasised the importance of limiting awards to adult children to “maintenance”, observing that the purpose of the Act is not to provide legacies to an applicant.

The judges said children would be entitled to more if they had had a close relationship with the parent, and they said the law should be clarified to avoid similar cases arising. Lady Hale observed that whilst there is strong public support for the principle that the wishes set down in a person’s will should be respected, there is also a wide range of public opinion about the circumstances in which adult descendants ought or ought not to be able to make a claim on an estate.

Jacqui said: “It is now clear as a result of this case that making reasonable provision for ‘maintenance’ does not amount to providing everything the applicant reasonably needs, and that an applicant’s needs will not necessarily be the measure of an award under the Act. “The general interpretation of the ruling is that adult children are less likely to be able to make a successful claim against parents' estates if they are disinherited. However Lady Hale’s call for guidance as to the criteria for deciding whether an adult child is deserving or not will be of great importance to practitioners assessing future claims under the 1975 Act.”