A surprising decision by the Court of Appeal will disquiet anyone who wishes to leave a family member out of their will.
Heather Ilott had been deliberately excluded from the will of her mother, Melita Jackson, who proceeded to leave her entire estate to charity. Ms Ilott challenged the will and, after a lengthy legal battle, the Court of Appeal has assessed the amount of the award payable to her at £164,000.
Ms Ilott had been estranged from her mother for many years. When her mother died aged 70, she brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. The Act allows a person who has been dependent on someone who has died without including them in their will to make a claim against the estate for 'reasonable provision' to be made for them in order to avoid their becoming destitute. Ms Ilott was awarded £50,000 at her first court appearance, a decision that was upheld by the High Court in 2014.
Mother and daughter had become estranged after Ms Ilott left home at the age of 17 to live with a man of whom Mrs Jackson disapproved. This caused a rift which was never healed and Mrs Jackson took the decision when making her will to leave her entire estate to three animal charities with which she had no particular connection.
However, Ms Ilott was successful in persuading the Court that the Act applied to her – a remarkable result given that the two women had had no contact, let alone a relationship involving financial dependency, for years.
The result has been portrayed in the popular press as a 'bombshell' which leaves the elderly not able to control where their estates go. Unless the decision is overturned on appeal by the Supreme Court, it certainly does change the landscape somewhat.
However, the case did have some unusual features, which may have influenced the judges' decisions. Firstly, Ms Ilott relies on state benefits. Had she been less in need, her claim would have been on shakier ground. Secondly, her exclusion was absolute, one of the appeal court judges describing her mother's action as 'harsh, unreasonable and capricious'. Thirdly, Mrs Jackson had no other close relatives to whom she could have bequeathed her estate.
The decision does raise questions as to what the best course of action might be if you have relatives who you are adamant should not benefit from your estate. For example, gifting away surplus assets before death is a possibility, as may be creating a trust before death. Leaving a potential claimant a smaller but significant sum may make a claim difficult to sustain.
Lastly, when making a will which excludes a potential beneficiary, it is sensible to ensure that the reasons for so doing are made clear: in this case, the main motive appeared to be spite.