By Laura Walkley
When seventeen year old Heather Ilott eloped with her boyfriend in 1978, she probably did not foresee that her actions would be making legal history almost forty years later. Heather’s mother, Melita Jackson, never forgave her daughter for running away, even though Heather later married and had five children with her teenage boyfriend.
When Mrs Jackson made her Will in 2002 she excluded Heather entirely; instead, her whole net estate, totalling almost half a million pounds, was to be divided between three animal charities. To make the message completely clear, she left a letter explaining that she was certain that she did not want Heather to receive a penny after her death.
Since the introduction of the 1975 Inheritance Act, certain groups of relatives and people who are financially dependent on a person can claim against that person’s estate after his or her death, even if the Will itself is found to be completely valid.
After her mother died in 2004, Heather bought an action under the Act on the basis that she had been denied ‘reasonable provision’ from the estate.
The District Judge who first heard the case awarded Heather £50,000. She appealed the decision, and the Court of Appeal this week published its decision that Heather should have one-third of the estate, some £164,000. One of the Court of Appeal judges called the exclusion of Heather ‘unreasonable, capricious and harsh’.
This recent case has suggested a more generous stance by judges towards claimants under the Act. Mrs Ilott did not rely on her mother for money, and previously the judicial attitude has been that adult children in similar circumstances should not ordinarily be favourably treated.
What does seem particularly relevant in this case is the fact that Mrs Ilott was not a wealthy woman. She lived on State benefits, in Local Authority housing, and the major part of the award has been given with the specific intention of allowing her to buy her own home. The judges were also keen to emphasise that Mrs Jackson’s reasons for falling out with her daughter were not, in their opinion, acceptable.
Another problem was the fact that whilst she was alive Mrs Jackson had never shown any particular interest in the charities she named in her Will, or in animal welfare in general. The impression was that she had chosen the charities almost at random in order to avoid benefiting her daughter.
Consequences for clients
The basic principle remains: in English law, anyone making a Will can leave their assets after their death to anyone they choose. However, testators should be cautious if they are planning on cutting out someone who might, in the normal course of things, expect to receive an inheritance.
Clients cannot completely prevent the possibility that an aggrieved party might try to claim against their estate after they have died. To weaken any such claim, we recommend that the clients record in writing both the reason for any exclusions, and also the reason for choosing the beneficiaries they have named – the latter is something Mrs Jackson failed to do, and it appears to have strengthened her daughter’s case.
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