By Laura Walkley
A recent Court decision has thrown back into focus the fraught question of whether a parent can legitimately exclude a child from his or her Will.
Michael Ames died in 2013. He left his entire net estate – which exceeded £1 million – to his widow, Elaine. Michael and Elaine had lived together for 33 years, and married in 2001. They ran a business together.
The contents of the Will disappointed Michael’s 41 year old daughter from his first marriage, Danielle. She considered that she ought to have been provided for in the Will and so brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.
English law provides that we can benefit anyone we want in our Wills. The Act tempers this by enabling certain categories of people (generally relatives), who believe that they have not been given reasonable financial provision for their maintenance, to launch a claim against the estate. Here, it was for Danielle to prove that she should have received something when her father died, taking into account her needs and resources.
Danielle based her case on the assertion that her relationship with her father had been a close and loving one, and that he had assisted her financially a great deal. Michael had in fact given his daughter his framing business, together with the capital with which to run it, in the 1990s. Danielle gave up that business in 2003. Michael then contributed to the start-up costs of another business run by Danielle’s partner. Danielle does not currently work.
Michael’s widow Elaine is the person who would have been disadvantaged if Danielle’s claim succeeded. She is aged 63 and is in poor health. She asserted that Michael’s relationship with her step-daughter was not as close as Danielle was claiming, and disagreed with much of Danielle’s evidence about the extent to which Michael funded her lifestyle.
The judge held that Danielle should not succeed in her claim, and that Elaine should receive the whole net estate. He was damning of her decision not to find work or retrain, which he called a ‘lifestyle choice’. As a healthy, relatively young woman, she was not able to convince him that she deserved anything from the estate in contravention of her father’s explicit wishes in his Will. He stated that in light of her age and health, Elaine could not be expected to find a job, and that the estate was not large enough to fund both her and her step-daughter’s living expenses.
The judge did not believe that Danielle’s relationship with her father was as close as she told him it had been. In fact, he was critical of her evidence as a whole, going as far as to say he could not accept anything she said unless it could be independently corroborated.
It is worth contrasting this case with Ilott v Mitson, which was decided last year. Again, this involved an adult daughter bringing a claim against the estate of her late parent.
Melita Jackson died in 2004. In her Will, she left her daughter Heather Ilott nothing. The two had fallen out violently when Heather was a teenager (she is now in her fifties) because Melita disliked her daughter’s boyfriend. Melita was adamant that Heather would not benefit on her death; instead, she split her estate between three animal charities, despite never having donated to them during her lifetime, and apparently disliking animals. Heather was not well-off, and in fact lived in Local Authority housing when her mother died.
Heather was successful in her claim. She was initially awarded £50,000, which was increased to over £160,000.
So, why did Danielle fail where Heather had succeeded?
Heather’s circumstances were one important factor when the Court of Appeal found in her favour. She relied on State support, and there was a moral point that the cost of maintaining her might fairly be shifted from the taxpayer to her mother’s estate. The award was stated to be intended to allow her to buy her own home. On the other hand, Danielle Ames was relatively comfortably-off, and had made a conscious choice to give up the business her father had given her and to remain out of work.
Of key significance was Melita’s motivation in leaving her Will as she did. It was found that her decision to benefit the charities was not motivated by any particular affection for them, but rather by a spiteful desire to ensure that her daughter received nothing. On the other hand, Michael Ames’ desire to provide for his widow was considered entirely reasonable.
To ensure that the Will you make is executed according to your wishes, and without ambiguity, you should seek advice from a qualified solicitor. This is certainly the case if you are considering excluding from your Will a child or other close relative or obvious beneficiary.
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