A long-running inheritance dispute, involving three animal charities and a disinherited daughter, is finally nearing an end, following a recent Supreme Court hearing.
In December, the highest judiciary in the country were asked to reconsider the case of Ilott v Mitson which has been ongoing since 2007.
The dispute involves the estate of the late Melita Jackson, who died in 2004 leaving the majority of her £486,000 estate to the RSPCA, Blue Cross and RSPB.
Mrs Jackson went to great lengths to disinherit her daughter Heather Illott. Their relationship broke down after Heather left home at the age of 17 to live with her future husband, Nicholas Illott and Mrs Jackson later wrote to her lawyers saying: “I have made it clear to my daughter…that she can expect no inheritance from me when I die.”
She even left a professionally drafted letter of wishes discouraging any claim by Mrs Ilott on her estate. Despite this, her daughter made a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, mainly on the basis that she and her family had a very low income and lived on state benefits.
Not surprisingly, the claim was opposed by the three charity beneficiaries named in the Will.
Initially, a district court judge decided that Mrs Ilott’s circumstances merited a £50,000 award from the estate. This was later overturned in the High Court.
She appealed, and last year the Court of Appeal (EWCA) granted her £163,000 – around a third of the estate – to buy a house.
The Supreme Court hearing on 12th December, headed by the UK’s top judge, Lord Neuberger, met to consider whether the EWCA’s approach to maintenance – based on whether the claimant’s current living standard was sufficient – was in fact wrong.
The Supreme Court will also decide whether the EWCA was wrong to structure its award so that Mrs Ilott would keep her entitlement to state benefits.
Lee McClellan, a partner with Palmers who specialises in Will disputes, said: “Although this case has made headlines over the past ten years, the final outcome, which is expected to be handed down by the Supreme Court in the coming weeks, is unlikely to drastically change existing laws.
“However, what it does usefully do is underline the importance, when making a Will excluding certain people from benefitting, of leaving clear evidence explaining not only why you are excluding them, but why you are choosing to leave your money to the particular beneficiaries named in the Will. Mrs Jackson did not have a strong relationship with the animal charities receiving her estate and that proved to be a factor in this case.
“It is always unfortunate when family relationships break down but when it does happen, anyone planning to make a Will in which they disinherit family members, who might otherwise expect to benefit on their death, should seek advice from a solicitor specialising in this area of law on how best to achieve their wishes.
“Whilst clients who refer to the case often question what the point is of making a Will if the provisions can be overturned, it is worth noting that if Mrs Jackson had not made her Will then her daughter would have inherited her entire estate under the intestacy rules and the Charities would have received nothing. The lesson should not therefore be that there is no point in making a Will.
“Challenging a Will successfully is not easy, particularly if it has been prepared by a specialist in this field, but it is possible in some circumstances. We have experience of Will disputes at Palmers and can provide expert legal advice on the strength of a case and how best to proceed. For more information, please contact us.”