Arguably the most prominent case of 2017 in this field is the Supreme Court judgment in Ilott v Blue Cross & Others. The claim concerned an able-bodied adult child seeking maintenance from the estate of her estranged mother.
Background to inheritance claims in the UK
Unlike many European countries, individuals in the UK are free to benefit whomever they wish in their will.
Under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, a claim can be brought by a spouse, civil partner, cohabitee, child of the deceased or individual wholly or partly maintained by the deceased if the will does not make ‘reasonable financial provision’ for them.
For spouses, the court will make an award that is reasonable in all the circumstances and will take into account what the surviving spouse might have received had the marriage been terminated by a decree of divorce. For cohabitees, children and individuals being maintained by the deceased, their claims are limited to provision for maintenance (the reasonable cost of everyday living). Able-bodied adult children can bring a claim under the Act but it can be difficult to establish that the deceased had an obligation to maintain them.
The three key questions the court considers when dealing with Act claims are:
- Does the claimant have standing under section 1 of the Act to bring the claim?
- Does the will make reasonable financial provision for the claimant?
- If the will does not make reasonable financial provision for the claimant, what provision should be made?
Facts of the case
In this case Mrs Ilott brought a claim against the estate of her mother, Mrs Jackson, under the Act after being left out of her mother’s will in favour of three animal charities. Two professionally drafted letters of wishes accompanied her mother’s will explaining why she did not wish to benefit her daughter from whom she had been estranged for over 26 years. Mrs Ilott was married with five children, able-bodied and lived on state benefits.
High Court judgment
At first instance, in deciding that there had been a failure to make reasonable financial provision, the district judge awarded Mrs Ilott £50,000 after balancing her financial constraints against her prolonged estrangement from her mother and her financial independence.
Court of Appeal judgment
On appeal, the Court of Appeal granted Mrs Ilott a higher award of £143,000, reasonable expenses and £20,000 in a manner which was designed to retain her state benefits. The court decided that Mrs Ilott’s financial constraints outweighed other factors including her financial independence from her mother. The court considered that the charities did not need the funds and that Mrs Jackson had no obvious connection with the charities.
Supreme Court judgment
The Supreme Court unanimously overturned the Court of Appeal’s judgment holding that £50,000 constituted reasonable financial provision in the circumstances.
The court confirmed that the function of maintenance awards for adult children was to provide for everyday living expenses and not to elevate their financial position. The court clarified that if housing is provided by way of maintenance, it should generally be provided as a life interest rather than a capital sum.
The court also confirmed that the nature of the relationship between the deceased and the claimant, such as prolonged estrangement, will affect what constitutes a just award.
The court stressed the importance of honouring the testator’s freedom to decide who to benefit regardless of the financial circumstances of their chosen beneficiaries and the extent of any connection between them.
The court also held that, for claims brought by able-bodied adult children, it will often be necessary to establish that the deceased had a moral obligation to make provision for the claimant.
The Supreme Court’s decision will provide comfort to testators and beneficiaries under a will that clearly articulated testamentary wishes will be difficult to challenge in the courts. However, the decision marks a more stringent approach to Act claims brought by able-bodied adult children where the presence or absence of a moral obligation will be at the heart of the claim.