Introduction

This was an application under the Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependants) Act 1975 (the Act) in which the Claimant, Ms Carole Anne Taylor, sought provision from the estate of the late Mr James Francis Redmond who died in October 2014. The net value of the estate sworn for probate was £898,479. The Defendants were Mr Redmond’s two daughters and a family friend acting as the Executor of the Will. The Will, dated 2nd August 1985, left his entire estate to his two daughters (a fact they concealed from the Claimant). The Judge, Stephen Hockman QC, who heard the trial over four days, had to determine the following:

  1. Whether Ms Taylor was eligible to make the application;
  2. If so, whether the Will made reasonable financial provision for her;
  3. If not, what the appropriate order for provision should be having regard to all the circumstances of the case.

Eligibility

Ms Taylor said that she was plainly eligible under the Act as she and the Deceased lived in the same household (a one-bed flat) together as man and wife for 7 years immediately prior to his death. The Defendants contended that their father had numerous ongoing relationships with other women alongside his relationship with Ms Taylor, one of whom lived in a property he owned in Somerset, and that towards the end of his life he had asked Ms Taylor to move out. They relied on evidence from their mother who asserted that Ms Taylor was a mere lodger.

The Judge, Stephen Hockman QC, rejected the Defendants’ evidence declining to infer that any other females in Mr Redmond’s life were anything more than friends. He considered that there was ample evidence that Mr Redmond regarded Ms Taylor as his partner despite them remaining unmarried. He placed significance on hospital records in which Ms Taylor was described as his ‘partner’ and a letter from one of the Defendants referring to her as their ‘step-mother.’ As to the assertion the Deceased had asked Ms Taylor to leave, he found it ‘improbable in the extreme’ that in the final months of his life he chose to end an intimate, supporting, and reciprocally loving relationship he had enjoyed for some years. For all these reasons, the Judge was satisfied that throughout the whole period of their relationship they shared a household as man and wife and that Ms Taylor was plainly eligible to bring the claim.

Reasonable financial provision

Reasonable financial provision is defined in section 1(2) of the Act meaning such financial provision as would be reasonable for the applicant to receive in maintenance, having regard to all the circumstances of the case. Orders the court may make are outlined in section 2(1) with the matters to which the court is to have regard when making its decision being contained in section 3.

The Judge considered, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, to include the length of their relationship and the extensive evidence and witness testimony he heard including as to how Ms Taylor cared for Mr Redmond, that he clearly had an obligation to provide for Ms Taylor, in addition to his two daughters. Ms Taylor, at 70 years of age, had limited retirement income / savings and no property or other capital. Given that the Will made no provision for her, the Deceased clearly failed to make reasonable financial provision. Mr Redmond’s daughters, abandoning their earlier evidence that they were in necessitous circumstances, conceded at trial they were financially comfortable. The Judge did not consider that their status as residuary beneficiaries outweighed the Claimant’s claim.

The appropriate order for provision

The Judge held that Ms Taylor needed regular payments to top up her existing pension income and a capital sum sufficient to acquire a modest property in which she could live out the rest of her days, as it was not appropriate for her to continue to depend on her son to provide her with a home.  Ms Taylor had been forced to move in with her son in 2015 after she was told by Ms Leberknight, one of the Defendants, to vacate the flat she shared with the Deceased.

Disbelieving the Defendants’ evidence at trial, the Judge found that Ms Leberknight (with her sister Mrs Redmond’s knowledge) had falsely represented to Ms Taylor that she and her sister had no choice but to sell the property because they didn’t stand to benefit from the estate. (In truth, they were the only beneficiaries.) He also expressed his distaste for their offer of a formal tenancy at £850 per month. He considered that they knew of Ms Taylor’s limited means and her inability to take up the offer.

Ms Taylor’s claim was entirely successful. She was awarded £145,000 for capitalised maintenance and the cost of a new car. She also claimed £180,000 for the purchase of a property in which she could live out her days and was successful in securing a life interest in such a property when purchased, along with the costs of the transaction. Mr Redmond’s daughters would be entitled to the remainder. The Judge felt that it would be unnecessary for the property to be provided on the basis of absolute freehold title in order to achieve reasonable provision: this would have conferred an additional benefit upon Ms Taylor’s heirs in circumstances where they had already been provided for following the sale of her former matrimonial home.

Comment

This case serves as a reminder that applications of this kind are fact-sensitive, and the detail and credibility of witness evidence is key. The Judge clearly preferred the Claimant’s evidential case. The Defendants’ credibility on key issues (care, nature of relationship, representations to the Claimant about the will) was damaged by abandonments and, in places, reversals of their evidence in chief.

There are two lessons for practitioners arising out of this case. First, it may not be sufficient in the preparation of evidence for trial in these cases to take a client’s evidence at face value (particularly as to means and family relationships). Evidence that might not withstand testing in court can be a very costly gamble. It is important that clients are aware when their assertions are susceptible to challenge. In this case, the Deceased’s daughters were ordered to pay the Claimant’s costs of her claim.

Second, this case is also a good illustration of modern, practical judicial balancing of competing interests in an estate: in particular, it shows what the court will constitute reasonable financial provision in relation to property, favouring a life interest over freehold title to achieve an equitable distribution of the estate. A Claimant is far more likely to succeed if his or her claim is not exaggerated and is pitched at a sensible level having regard to competing claims on the Deceased’s accumulated wealth. It is therefore far better to advance a solid proportionate claim than to risk credibility losses by claiming exaggerated amounts from an estate.

With assistance from Kayleigh Bloomfield.