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Charities beware: The case of Heather Ilott v David Mitson and others

In spite of letter of wishes, claim against the estate wins
A recent Hearing at the Court of Appeal has clarified the law in relation to claims brought by adult children against estates, under The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975) (’the Act’).

The Court in this case has ruled that the adult daughter of the deceased is entitled to a share of her estate, despite a clear letter of wishes left with the deceased’s Will explaining why she had excluded her daughter.

The background
The claim was brought by Heather Ilott against the estate of her mother Melita Jackson, who died on 10 July 2004 aged 70. Her net estate was worth around £486,000.00 and aside from some pecuniary legacies, left the entire residuary estate to the Blue Cross Animal Welfare Society, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals.

The deceased’s Will dated 16 April 2003 made no provision for Mrs Ilott who, by the time of the Hearing was aged 50 and the deceased’s only child. Mrs Ilott was estranged from her mother when she died and was married with five children. Mrs Ilott’s financial circumstances were relatively modest with the majority of the household income made up of state benefits.

The deceased left a letter of wishes with her Will explaining that she had excluded her daughter from her Will as she had not seen her for many years and that Mrs Ilott was not financially dependant on her having been independent financially since leaving home.

However, Mrs Ilott commenced proceedings against the estate under the Act.

The outcome
The Judge at the first Hearing held that the disposition of the deceased’s estate by her Will was not such as to make reasonable financial provision and awarded Mrs Ilott a lump sum of £50,000.00.

Mrs Ilott appealed against the size of the award and the charities cross-appealed arguing that Mrs Ilott should not have been awarded anything at all.

The Appeal and cross-appeal were heard in October 2009 at which the Court held that the District Judge had erred in law and dismissed Mrs Ilott’s claims in their entirety.

Mrs Ilott then appealed to the England and Wales Court of Appeal as a result of which her appeal has been allowed and referred back to a District Judge to consider the size of the award.

The implications for the future
The charities had sought to argue that a decision such as this would set a dangerous precedent for challenges to a Will by a close family member even where the deceased’s wishes had been clearly documented.

It is clear from this that it is possible for adult children to bring successful claims under the Act for reasonable financial provision where the estate fails to make such provision, even where the adult child is not dependant on the deceased and where the deceased has expressly chosen to exclude them.

Charities need to be aware of this case and the impact that it could have on legacy income.

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