It is possible for the child of someone who has died to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 for provision from the estate. This is often crucial in the case of young children who require maintenance until they are able to support themselves. However, the Courts have traditionally been less sympathetic to adult children who are expected to maintain themselves.
There has long been sympathy from the Court where someone suffers physical or mental health problems which mean that it is hard, or impossible, to work, but where someone has simply chosen not to work, or wishes to have a more comfortable lifestyle, the Cout will not usually step in.
The law changed slightly with the case of Ilott v Mitson, first heard in 2011 but which has been appealed numerous times since, with the latest appeal being heard in March 2014.
Ms Ilott was estranged from her mother, and had been since the age of 17. She had a boyfriend who her mother did not approve of and had gone on to marry him and have 5 children. The husband had a very low income and the family was heavily dependent on state benefits. There had been unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation over the years, and on the mother's death she had left her entire estate to three charities. Whilst the Claimant had not expected to inherit, she brought a claim under the Inheritance Act claiming that her mother's will did not make reasonable financial provision for her because of her needy financial circumstances.
Ms Ilott won the claim and was awarded damages of £50,000 (out of a total estate of approximately £486,000).
Both parties appealed. Ms Ilott appealed on the grounds that £50,000 was insufficient because she wanted enough to purchase her home exercising her right to buy. The Defendant charities appealed on the grounds that Ms Ilott had failed to establish that the will did not make reasonable financial provision for her, and therefore she should not receive anything at all.
The appeal was first heard by the High Court, which found in favour of the charities. Ms Ilott then appealed to the Court of Appeal which reinstated the original decision (that the will did not make reasonable provision) and sent the case back to the High Court for a decision on the level of damages that she should receive (whether the original figure of £50,000 should be changed).
Ms Ilott argued that she should be awarded a sum sufficient to allow her to purchase her home. She argued that the fact that she did not expect to receive anything from her mother's estate should not prejudice the Judge making a decision on how much she should actually receive.
In March 2014, the Judge decided not change the original damages of £50,000. He felt that the question of whether the Claimant had expected to receive anything was only relevant at the first stage of the case (deciding whether she should get anything at all) and not when deciding how much she should get. However, he also felt that it was not appropriate to award the Claimant the whole of her housing need, particularly taking into account the deceased's wishes as set out in her Will. She had chosen to leave her estate to charities and that had to be respected.
This case is a very helpful one for adult children because it has significantly opened up the circumstances in which they can claim. It signifies a softening of the Court's approach, and an increased willingness to take the whole of an adult child’s circumstances into account. However, it does not mean that adult children will automatically inherit, or that they can name their price. The Court will continue to scrutinise carefully the quantum of claims and will take into account the wishes of the deceased even where these have the effect of disinheriting children in favour of distant beneficiaries with no moral claim on the estate.