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Ilott: Supreme Court rules in favour of animal charities

Current law on maintenance provision is ‘unsatisfactory’ says Lady Hale

15 March 2017

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The Supreme Court has unanimously allowed the appeal of three animal charities and restored the award of £50,000 given by a district judge to Mrs Ilott who was originally excluded from her mother's will.

Melita Jackson had left the majority of her £486,000 estate to the RSPCA, RSPB, and Blue Cross and categorically stated that she did not want her daughter to inherit from her estate.

However, Heather Ilott was awarded £50,000 by District Judge Million, which was trebled by the Court of Appeal in 2015.

Today, the seven presiding justices (Lord Neuberger, Lady Hale, Lord Kerr, Lord Clarke, Lord Wilson, Lord Sumption, and Lord Hughes) unanimously agreed that the district judge had correctly decided the case.

The Court of Appeal had held that the district judge had fallen into two ‘fundamental’ errors: that the award should be limited given the long estrangement; and that the award of £50,000 was made without knowing what effect this would have on the state benefits Mrs Illot and her family received.

Instead, the Court of Appeal held that the claimant, who is in receipt of state benefits, should be treated the same way as one who is elderly or disabled; that an award of a capital sum (£143,000) should be made to allow the claimant to buy the house in which she lived that would not affect her benefits entitlement. An additional award of £20,000 with an option to receive it in instalments to avoid any impact on benefit entitlement was also made.

However, Lord Neuberger said the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 required a single assessment of reasonable financial provision based on factors in section 3 of the Act.

‘There is no warrant in the Act for requiring a process of the kind suggested by the Court of Appeal. If the judge were to arrive at a figure for reasonable financial provision without one or more of the relevant facts in the case, he would not be undertaking the assessment required by the Act.’

The president of the Supreme Court added that the nature of the relationship between the deceased and the claimant will in many cases be of ‘considerable importance’. He also said the Court of Appeal’s approach gave little weight to the 25-year estrangement or to the testator’s clear wishes.

While acknowledging that the charities’ claim was not on a par with that of Mrs Illot, they depended heavily on testamentary bequests for their work, which is for the public benefit and in many cases will be for demonstrably humanitarian purposes.

As to whether the £50,000 award was sufficient, Lord Neuberger said the Court of Appeal’s criticism was unjustified as a substantial part of the award could be spent on essential household repairs, which would minimise the impact on the family’s benefits. The ‘option’ to draw down £20,000 at will would also have fallen foul of any test for state benefits.

In a short written judgment, Lady Hale took the opportunity to comment on the ‘unsatisfactory state of the present law’, which gives ‘no guidance as to the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether an adult child is deserving or undeserving of reasonable maintenance’.

Matthew Morrison, a barrister at Serle Court, commented on the decision: ‘Today’s judgment was clear that it was not about punishing or rewarding Mrs Ilott or her mother’s behaviour. When the court decides 1975 Act disputes they must be objective and the fairness of the testator’s actions is irrelevant.

‘The Supreme Court recognised that Mrs Ilott was in real financial need and that her lack of relationship with her mother was not enough to deny her claim to a share of her mother’s estate. Although that estrangement was relevant it could not be the decisive factor.’

Scott Taylor, a senior associate in the dispute resolution team at Barlow Robbins, added: ‘This judgment has potentially helped to stem the floodgates for claims by adult children who feel disappointed with the level of provision made for them in a will and has confirmed that only adult children who can demonstrate particularly straitened financial circumstances are likely to succeed.’

Amy Proferes, also a barrister at Serle Court said Lady Hale’s short judgment was a call for action by parliament in the field of inheritance disputes. ‘The 1975 Act raises complex social questions about family obligations and "family wealth" that are not answered by the legislation itself.

‘The law is currently quite unpredictable and this judgment only confirms that those thinking about bringing a claim should think carefully about the risks involved. Settling such claims on agreeable terms might prove a more secure option.’

Matthew Rogers is a legal reporter at Solicitors Journal

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @lex_progress

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Private client Wills, Trusts & Probate Charities Courts & Judiciary

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