High profile ruling sheds light on need for Inheritance Act guidance

If you hadn’t heard of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“The Inheritance Act 1975”) before, you may well have happened upon following the case of Ilott v Blue Cross, which made national headlines – and not for the first time.

The case first came to light in 2007 when Heather Ilott made an application under the Inheritance Act 1975 for ‘reasonable financial provision’ from her mother’s estate. Mrs Ilott, who was estranged from her mother, Melita Jackson, had been written out of Mrs Jackson’s will. The will bequeathed the majority of Mrs Jackson’s £486,000 estate to three animal charities; Blue Cross, the RSPB and the RSPCA.

The legal battle surrounding the case has taken ten years to reach a conclusion, gradually making its way through the English court system and culminating in a Supreme Court ruling that overturned a previous decision made by the Court of Appeal. This was the first time that the Supreme Court had been asked to consider the provisions of the Inheritance Act 1975.

Essentially, the Supreme Court judgment takes matters back to the very first hearing, where a District Judge awarded Mrs Ilott £50,000 from Mrs Jackson’s estate. The Supreme Court rejected the subsequent position taken by the Court of Appeal which, upon appeal from Mrs Ilott who asserted that the £50,000 award was not substantial enough, awarded the claimant £143,000 to purchase a property and £20,000 to invest for supplementary income.

As a result of the Supreme Court ruling, which comes following a legal challenge from the three charities that Mrs Jackson had bequeathed her estate to, the claimant, Mrs Ilott will receive £113,000 less than she was awarded by the Court of Appeal.

The outcome of the case will polarise opinion. Much has been made in the media of the rights of an individual to have the provisions they set out in their will respected. The charities involved say they staged the Supreme Court challenge as a matter of ‘principle’ and that the judgment will allow them to “continue to honour the wishes of individuals who choose to remember charities in their will.”

The protection of individual freedoms is enormously important, of course, but ensuring there is a safety net in place for people who are at risk of injustice as the result of disinheritance is essential too and this is where The Inheritance Act 1975 comes in. The Act, which has been around for over 40 years, enables children (minor and adult) to claim reasonable financial provision if they have not been provided for in a will or on intestacy.

At Rothley Law, we have represented many individuals who have legitimate reasons for contesting a will and seeking reasonable financial provision. As evidenced by Ilott v Blue Cross, this is an exceedingly complex area of law that can only be navigated with the help of expert advice.

What resonates from the judgment is that claims under the Inheritance Act 1975 are very difficult to judge. Indeed, one of the Supreme Court justices, Lady Hale, in her judgment, made a point of commenting on the “unsatisfactory state of the present law, giving as it does no guidance as to the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether an adult child is deserving or undeserving of reasonable maintenance.” This would appear to be an appeal to Parliament to introduce legislation that provides clearer guidelines on how judgments should be reached in claims involving the Inheritance Act 1975. Certainly, ‘the unsatisfactory state of the law’ is reflected in the fact that, as the case moved from court to court, starkly different views were arrived at and 10 years of litigation have taken us back to where we started from.

How the legal landscape develops in regards to the Inheritance Act 1975 remains to be seen. As always, every individual case will be decided on its own facts. What appeal cases do is provide guidance on how courts should in future balance competing arguments and which factors are the most important when striking that balance. Here it may take Parliament to provide a more definitive framework against which to decide such cases in the future. The complexities involved in contesting a will have been put in the spotlight as a result of this latest high-profile ruling, as has the potential for a claim to become protracted. Having represented people seeking recourse to disinheritance for over a decade, I would stress the importance of trying to reach a settlement through mediation and negotiation in order to avoid drawn out court disputes. As we are sure the parties in Ilott v Blue Cross would attest, disputing a will is emotionally challenging and objective legal advice will help to provide clarity in difficult times.

By Adam Draper


Disputed Wills and Trusts