The highest court in the land - the Supreme Court - handed down its long-awaited decision on 15 March 2017 in the case of Ilott v Mitson.
The case has been widely reported in the media and there has been much commentary about whether the law has been clarified for adult children who have been left out of a parent's Will.
Heather Ilott was completely left out of her estranged mother's Will, who instead left her estate of approximately £500,000 to three animal charities that she had no connection with during her lifetime.
Mrs Ilott brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, claiming that her mother's Will failed to make adequate provision for her. The case was originally heard by a District judge who awarded Mrs Ilott £50,000. The Court of Appeal tripled the award on appeal giving Mrs Ilott £143,000 to buy a house and a further £20,000. Now 10 years after the case was originally heard, seven Supreme Court judges have reinstated the original award of £50,000.
No Change to Existing Law
The case has not changed the law - it is not easier or harder to bring these sorts of Inheritance Act claims. If you are an adult child and you have been left out of your parent's Will, our advice remains the same - seek specialist advice early on to establish whether your financial circumstances bring you within the range of awards a court is likely to make.
The basic test is whether you can show what might be reasonably required for your ongoing maintenance. The court has a wide discretion when making awards. That is what makes these sorts of claims difficult to predict in terms of how much the award will be but importantly not whether an award is likely to be made, save for borderline cases. Mrs Ilott's case might have helped clarify the law on what constitutes maintenance but it has not changed it.
Equally, if you might be thinking of disinheriting a child, our advice is do not be lulled into thinking that it is now easier to do this. It is not as simple as saying that Mrs Ilott's case in some way represents a victory for re-establishing the principle of having the freedom to leave your estate on death to whomever you choose without fear of challenge. There are steps you can take to make it harder for a disinherited child to challenge your Will but you cannot put this beyond doubt. In other words, you cannot opt out of the Inheritance Act legislation.
What to Do if There Are Tensions in a Family?
We always advise that you should regularly review and update your Will to take account of the changing nature of family relationships and the financial circumstances of your children. If you are thinking about disinheriting a child, even one that might be estranged, you should always take specialist advice. The cost of taking timely, measured and most importantly expert advice will be a fraction of the costs your Estate will potentially face if it becomes embroiled in lengthy and costly litigation caused by a badly drafted Will or a Will that fails to take account of changing family circumstances.