21 Mar 2016
Author: Stephen Breen
Most of us think that by making a will, we get to choose how our property is distributed at death. However, an increasing number of wills are being successfully challenged by disgruntled relatives, and the recent case of Melita Jackson is a notable example.
Mrs Jackson decided to leave £5,000 of her £486,000 estate to the BBC Benevolent Fund and the rest to three of her favourite animal charities: the RSPCA, RSPB and Blue Cross. Perhaps anticipating this decision could be challenged, she wrote a letter to accompany her will which stated: “My daughter has not been financially reliant upon me since she left home, although I did make gifts of money to her on her birthday and at Christmas up to and including her 21st birthday, although she refused to acknowledge any of the payments that I made to her.”
The letter continued: “If my daughter should bring a claim against my estate, I instruct my executors to defend such a a claim as I can see no reason why my daughter should benefit in any way from my estate . . . I have made it clear to my daughter during her lifetime that she can expect no inheritance from me when I die.”
Mrs Jackson’s wishes could not be clearer – but her daughter Heather Ilot decided to challenge the will regardless and was awarded £50,000 in 2007 by District Judge Million to cover her maintenance needs. Dissatisfied with the award, she challenged the decision in the district court and the amount was reduced to zero on first appeal by Eleanor King J in 2009. Ruling in the charities’ favour, Eleanor King J noted that any other conclusion would “undermine the basic premise that in the UK a citizen can leave his estate where he pleases”.
An appeal was lodged and in 2011, the Court of Appeal reinstated her original £50,000 award, noting that it was not for Eleanor King J to interfere with the original District Judge’s decision. However, Mrs Ilot who had five children and was on benefits without a pension, was still not satisfied with the amount and was also concerned that the capital sum awarded would reduce her means-tested benefits down to the £16,000 threshold. The exception here is if the capital is used to purchase a home, but Mrs Ilot argued that the £50,000 was insufficient to purchase her rented Housing Association property. Initially the Court of Appeal rejected this argument, but on a further appeal in July 2015 the Court of Appeal awarded her £163,000 (see: Ilot v Mitson  EWCA Civ 797). This was made up of £143,000 to purchase her Housing Association property, plus £20,000 on top as ‘additional income’, making a total of more than 3 times the original sum.
This landmark ruling was heralded as providing clarity to the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. However, the saga is far from over. Now, the three charities that stood to inherit most of Mrs Jackson’s estate have been granted permission to bring an appeal before the Supreme Court. Once again, the court will have to consider the provisions of the Inheritance Act 1975 and provide clear guidance as to the circumstances under which judges may change peoples’ wills. The Act allows judges to change a parents’ will to provide for a child’s maintenance needs, so crucial to the case will be how the Court interprets the word ‘maintenance’ in the Act.
The fact that a court can interfere with a person’s wishes can come as something of a surprise to many, particularly where a son or daughter has been estranged for some time. This highlights the importance of seeking professional advice when drafting a will, particularly if any of the gifts may be regarded as controversial. It also highlights that it may be possible to challenge a will if you were not provided for reasonably and believe you should have been – even if you were not a relative of the deceased. Speak to our later life planning team if you would like further advice or reassurance on this topic.