There has been a lot of comment in the press since the case of Heather Ilott’s claim on her mother’s estate hit the headlines.
Essentially the Court stated that Mrs Ilott was entitled to part of her late mother’s estate, regardless of her mother’s wishes, which were clearly and lawfully expressed in her Will. In fact her mother had gone one stage further than simply leaving her daughter out of her Will, as she had provided a letter setting out the reason why she was excluding her only child.
Mrs Ilott has been estranged from her mother, Melita Jackson, for 30 years. Mrs Ilot had eloped with her boyfriend at the age of 17, an act which her mother deeply disapproved of. Later attempts by the daughter to reconnect with her mother were unsuccessful.
When her mother died, under the terms of the Will, Mrs Ilott was to receive nothing from the £468,000 estate. The money was to be distributed between three charities. Mrs Ilott was by this time a mother of 5 and dependent on state benefits. Despite her Mother’s express wishes, she has been awarded a share of the estate in an amount yet to be decided or agreed. But, as has been stated by some in the legal profession and elsewhere, is this really the end of a person’s right to leave their estate to whoever they choose? Well, maybe not.
As always with cases that apparently fly in the face of such established principles the devil is in the detail of the judgment.
Firstly you have to consider three facts:
1) The late Mrs Jackson had left her estate to three charities, the RSPB, Blue Cross and the RSPCA. She had no known connection with these charities or their aims during her lifetime;
2) This allowed the judge, Lady Justice Arden, to describe Mrs Jackson’s act as “unreasonable, capricious and harsh”; and
3) Mrs Ilott was living on state benefits and had never worked. Her family and geographic circumstances were such that a job even in the future could be difficult and would most likely be part-time and/or not well paid.
None of these three facts were singled out as a deciding factor. However the Act on which Mrs Ilott relied, crucially uses the word “reasonable” when describing the provision to be made for a dependent. This could be viewed in two ways. Firstly the fact that her daughter was clearly not very well off and that this situation was unlikely to change. Secondly, and to quote Lady Justice Arden, “The size of the estate and the absence of other pressing demands on it, for instance, as in this case, will be often be very relevant in this evaluation”. In other words, the charities, all three of which are large national charities, did not need the money in the same way as Mrs Ilott. This must then be coupled in part with the fact that there was no connection between the late Mrs Jackson and the three charities she chose.
The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 gives a judge the discretion to amend the distribution of an Estate where the Will or the rules of intestacy have not done so. Such distribution then must make ‘reasonable financial provision’.
There are only certain people who can make a claim under the Act including surviving spouses, former spouses, co-habitees, children, step children, civil partners or anyone being maintained by the deceased. Therefore as her daughter, and in fact only child, had received no provision the decision to make an award was relatively easy it would seem. But the Court as always has stressed that had one of the facts above been different, then this would firstly have affected their decision to make any award to Mrs. Ilott. Secondly, it would then affect how much she should receive.
So, returning to the question, is this the end of Wills and the right to leave your estate to whoever you choose? The answer is undoubtedly no, albeit a qualified “no”.
You must, when considering the terms of your Will consider those who are dependent upon you or who, for reasons of disability for example or personal circumstance, have a claim and who would fit into the categories of persons named above. If you are distributing only a limited amount to family members for example and considerable distributions elsewhere, regardless of charitable status or merely someone you wish to favour, it is clear the personal connection is also vital. As is ensuring that your reasons are clearly articulated and recorded.
Although there is no guarantee of being able to defend a claim, it is always essential to obtain proper legal advice when considering your options regarding your Will and who you would choose to administer it.
Image By Garry Knight under a Creative Commons Licence