You might think that if someone made a Will, and expressed in clear terms what they wanted to be done with their estate, that their decision would be treated as final (provided that it was arrived at without undue influence, and with a sound mind). There have been a couple of recent cases which have served to underline that matters are not always that simple, however, particularly when the effect of the Will is not what was expected by the beneficiaries of the person making it.
… there’s a disappointed daughter
One method of challenging the dispositions made under a Will is an application under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. A person who qualifies (by being a family member or a dependant as defined in the Act) may apply for a court order which modifies the provisions of the Will (or the statutory Will created on an intestacy) where that Will did not make “reasonable financial provision” for the person applying.
This was the situation in the case of Ilott v Mitson and others reported recently. The deceased had left almost all of her £486,000 net estate to various charities established for the protection of birds and animals. The reasons for the selection of these charities were unclear. As the Judge records in his judgment “there is no evidence that the deceased … had any particular love of, or interest in, either animals or birds”. She left one daughter, who was married with five children and who was living in “modest circumstances”. It may be that they simply had the virtue of being a repository of her estate, to avoid it passing to her daughter (who made the application).
When an application is made under the Act, the Court must take into account a variety of factors in deciding whether the applicant’s circumstances mean that the provision made (if any) under the Will is reasonable or unreasonable. On the daughter’s application, the Court ordered a payment of £50,000 to be made out of the estate for the daughter’s benefit. The decision took account of the fact that the split between mother and daughter had arisen because the daughter had chosen to marry and move away from her mother, against her mother’s wishes (something which the Court felt a daughter should be entitled to choose to do without penalty), but also of the daughter’s means and circumstances.
The daughter challenged the amount of the award on appeal, and the charities also appealed to object to any provision being made at all. This was on the basis that the mother was entitled to have taken the view that she did not want to benefit her daughter and that the Court had been in error to look behind it. The Court of Appeal rejected that argument and reinstated the award, leaving it open to the daughter to challenge the amount at a separate hearing if she wished.
This decision is reflective of a line of recent cases, all of which have reinforced the impression that the Courts will not be slow to substitute their judgment for that of the person making the Will, where the provisions of that Will do not seem to the Court to be reasonable. As such it is a development which is only likely to lead to an increasing number of such disputes, and uncertainty for any executor trying to give effect to the wishes of the person who made the Will.
… there’s a frustrated farmer
In Suggitt v Suggitt and others, there was again a disappointed beneficiary who had been left less under his father’s will than he had expected. This was a case relating to farming land and various properties, with a total value at probate of a little over £4 million. The disappointed beneficiary in question was the son of the deceased, who had throughout his life worked to a greater or lesser extent on the farm, and who said that he had expected the property to be left to him on his father’s death. Instead, the father left the estate to one of his three daughters subject to an expression of wishes (which was therefore not enforceable by the son) that if in the daughter’s opinion the son showed himself capable of working on and managing the farm, the daughter should transfer the farmland to him.
The son made an application to have the farmland transferred to him under the principle of “proprietary estoppel”. To prove an estoppel, the applicant must show that there was a promise of land, that the applicant relied on that promise, and that as a result of relying on that promise, the applicant had suffered some prejudice or detriment.
The son’s evidence was that on a number of occasions statements had been made to him suggesting that the farmland would be his after his father’s death. The Judge concluded that while the father may have hoped that his son would one day farm the land, he was consistently disappointed in his son as a farmer, and that the Will therefore accurately reflected the father’s wishes. Nevertheless, the Judge also explained that it was irrelevant (for the purposes of the proprietary estoppel application) what the father’s state of mind was. The relevant question was whether or not the son believed that the land was promised to him, and the Judge concluded that the son had genuinely believed this, based on what he had been told. He also found that the son had worked on the father’s land without pay in expectation that he would one day inherit, and that while his father had supported him while he was living on the farm, he did not receive in kind as much as he might have received in pay as an agricultural labourer.
On that basis the Court awarded the son the farming land and one of the farm houses to live in with his family, leaving the balance of the estate with his sister. A number of issues were left unresolved and the Judge gave strong indications that he would expect the family to co-operate in order to resolve these.
… there’s a need to negotiate
Both cases were marked by this characteristic, that the Judges in each instance felt that it was a shame that the parties could not have worked together to seek to find a resolution which did not involve the cost, delay and undoubted stress and anxiety that formal Court proceedings involved. In the Suggitt case the Judge remarked that “One of the unfortunate features of this case has been the inability of the parties to compromise an obviously compromisable case”. In Ilott v Mitson while (as explained above) the Court of Appeal left open the possibility of a further challenge to the level of the award made to the daughter, the President of the Court went on to say that he urged “the parties to consider carefully whether a further hearing is in anyone’s interests. No doubt substantial additional costs will be incurred, and compromise, now that the appellant has won her major point, must be in the interests of everyone.”
Anyone who has been involved in such disputes will know that compromise may sometimes be (or certainly feel) impossible to achieve. But these cases do act as a warning to any litigant thinking that their interpretation of the terms of a Will, and their expectation of entitlement under it, is bound to be upheld by the Court.