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Inheritance disputes – why running out of time can be costly

The importance of taking legal action quickly if you are not happy with the provisions made for you in a Will has been dramatically highlighted by a recent High Court ruling.

Farmer's widow, Mary Sargeant, lost a landmark bid to increase the provision made for her in her husband's Will because the court said she had left it too late.

Way too late, in fact - the gap between Joe Sargeant's death and the claim being brought was more than ten years, apparently the longest on record and significantly over the six month limit from the date of the grant of probate required by law.

What did the Will say?

Joe Sargeant died in 2005. There was no dispute over his Will which left almost all his estate to a discretionary family trust of which Mary, his wife of 45 years, and daughter, Jane, were named as beneficiaries.

The estate, made up mostly of farmland, was valued at £3.2 million at the time although it is now said to be worth around £8 million as much of the land has since been given planning permission for a housing development.

Provision was made for Mary to have an income but Joe also expressed his wish to see his farm preserved as an ongoing concern for Jane and her children.

Why wasn't Mary happy with this?

Following Joe's death, Mary received a tax-free salary of £20,400 plus money for household expenses. In 2009, she became concerned about her financial position and by 2012 was spending about £40,000 a year. In 2014, she again told trustees she was short of money.

Whist Mary claimed her income was simply too low, daughter Jane said she was overspending and should use her own savings to cover the shortfall. Both were against the idea of selling some land to release cash.

Finally, in 2016, Mary decided to issue a claim against the estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependents) Act 1975 complaining she was now experiencing financial hardship.

Was she entitled to do this?

Yes, Mary had a perfect right to bring a claim under the Act for "such financial provision as it would be reasonable in all the circumstances of the case for a …..wife to receive, whether or not that provision is required for….her maintenance."

The trouble was, she was literally years out of time and way beyond the six month deadline.

Because of this, she had to get the permission of the Court to bring her claim with her lawyers arguing she should be entitled to more money because she had only recently become aware of the financial implications of the Will. Jane opposed her mother's application.

What did the judge decide?

Judge David Cook rejected Mary's claim saying it was "impossible" to believe she had not realised her predicament sooner.

He said: "The reality is that Mary took her own decision to continue to work within the arrangements provided for by the Will rather than to explore whether she had any option available to vary them, in the full knowledge of the financial difficulties she was under, and maintained that position over a very long period."

After the ruling Jane said that keeping the farm within the family and fully operational was her father's number one intention and added: "Today's decision is exactly what we were hoping for."

Mary is expected to bring further legal action.

Avoiding the same scenario…

Two lessons can be learned from this case:

  1. The importance of succession planning early on and not waiting till it's too late;
  2. Making sure there is no delay in bringing a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependants) Act 1975 which must be issued within six months of the date of the grant of probate

For help and advice about contesting a Will, please contact Wards Solicitors' Probate Disputes team.

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