The Supreme Court has heard a case that should clarify the law on challenging wills on the grounds that they do not make reasonable provision. Animal charities are appealing a Court of Appeal decision in July last year in favour of Heather Ilott, who had been excluded from her mother Melita Jackson’s will.
Jackson left her estate, worth around £500,000, to charities. She had excluded her daughter after she left home with a boyfriend as a 17-year-old.
In the initial hearing, the High Court awarded Ilott £50,000. Both parties appealed: Ilot claimed she had not been awarded enough while the charities said it was too much. On appeal, Ilott, who is in her fifties, was awarded £143,000 – to buy the rented home she was living in – plus an extra £20,000 for additional income.
The Court of Appeal said Ilott, who has five children and was on benefits and without a pension, was not given a reasonable provision in the will.
The appeal in Ilott v Blue Cross and Ors, filed by the Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, will ask whether the appeal court was wrong to set aside the initial award and to allow Ilott to preserve her entitlement to state benefits.
Paula Myers, head of the wills, trust and estate disputes team at UK firm Irwin Mitchell, said: ‘The ruling potentially made it easier for adult children who have been left out of wills to challenge them if they have not been left a reasonable provision and we have seen a rise in enquiries from people who feel that they have been unfairly disinherited.
A woman who had been independent her entire life should not be awarded up to a total of £163,000 from her mother’s will against the parent’s wishes to leave all her money to three animal charities, the UK’s highest court heard.
In a landmark challenge over the freedom of people to determine who benefits from their wills, the Supreme Court justices have been asked to rule in the latest round of a lengthy legal fight that began after Heather Ilott’s late mother Melita Jackson left most of her £486,000 estate to three animal charities.
Ilott, a mother of five from Great Munden, Hertfordshire, who has no pension and lived on state benefits, contested her mother’s will and was originally awarded £50,000 from the estate – increased last year by the Court of Appeal judges to £143,000 with potentially an additional award of £20,000.
Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who were the main beneficiaries of the will, argued that the appeal judges “fell into error”.
They should not have decided to increase Ilott’s maintenance payout, which included £143,000 for her to buy her housing association home, the charities say.
Penelope Reed, QC, of 5 Stone Buildings, for the charities, said in her submissions: “The Court of Appeal had erred in its approach.”
The appeal judges, she added, had “failed to give weight to the fact the respondent [Ilott] had been independent of the deceased her entire adult life, had been estranged from her and had no expectation of benefiting from her estate.”
Reed went on to tell the justices that the appeal judges had failed “to give weight to the testamentary wishes of the deceased and failed to give any or due weight to the fact that Mrs Ilott had lived within her means for many years”.
Seven Supreme Court justices have been urged to overturn the Court of Appeal’s ruling – and either make an “appropriate” order for Ilott’s “provision” or restore the order made by a district judge in 2007 that the sum should be £50,000.
The justices are expected to reserve their decision at the end of the one-day hearing. Lawyers said that the hearing could have a profound impact on charity legacies, which total some £2 billion a year.
‘Whatever the Supreme Court decides, the judgment from this case will provide clarity to the Inheritance Act 1975 and likely set out the guidelines for when challenges can be brought to wills based on inadequate provision and set out the criteria which must be met in order to disinherit your adult children,’
Whilst it is understandable why this case has gone to the Supreme Court to determine a matter of law, still it is advisable to try to mediate a dispute like this rather than become the test case.