The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“I(PFD)A 1975”) allows certain categories of people to bring a claim against the estate of someone who has died on the grounds that what they have been left by the deceased is not “reasonable financial provision” for them.

If you intend to bring such a claim, then you need to act quickly. You have six months from the date of the grant of probate to bring your claim and if you miss this deadline you need the permission of the court to proceed.

In the recent case of Sargeant v Sargaent [2018] EWHC 8 (Ch), the court considered the circumstances in which permission to bring such a claim out of time will be granted.

The background

Mr and Mrs Sargeant had been married for over 45 years when he died on 10 May 2005. Mr Sargeant was a farmer and owned a significant amount of land at the time of his death.

Under the terms of his Will, Mrs Sargeant stood to benefit from a life insurance policy worth around £75,000. The remainder of his estate (mainly land valued at around £3.5 million) was to be held in a discretionary trust for the benefit of Mrs Sargeant, their daughter Jane and Jane’s children. Mr Sargeant’s clear intention (from letters that he wrote) was for Mrs Sargeant to live comfortably off the income she would receive from the land. Jane had been involved in her father’s farming business and was to carry on farming the land after he died.

A Grant of Probate was taken by Mrs Sargeant, Jane and their family solicitor around a year later and the estate was administered in accordance with the terms of the Will.

However, in the following years the land did not produce very much by way of income for Mrs Sargeant and she struggled financially. She was reluctant to sell the land and could not reach an agreement with Jane for an increased income from the land. A further plot twist was that some of the land significantly increased in value when planning permission was granted for houses to be built in 2016. This increased the value of the land to around £8 million.

In 2016, more than 10 years after the grant of probate, Mrs Sargeant brought a claim seeking a larger share of her husband’s estate under the I(PFD)A 1975. This was dealt with as a preliminary issue.

The decision

It was argued that Mrs Sargeant should be allowed to bring her claim out of time because she had a good claim and the estate largely remained intact. It was also argued that the increase in the value of the land (due to planning permission being granted) was a significant change in circumstances which justified her late application.

However, these arguments were rejected by the court. They held that it did not matter that Mrs Sargeant had a good claim or the estate remained largely intact, because she was unable to show a “significant change in circumstances” that was outside of her control and genuinely unforeseen. This was because the evidence showed that she had been aware of the possibility that planning permission might be granted since even before her husband’s death.

Mrs Sargeant was therefore unable to justify the lateness of her claim, and on this basis, the court did not grant her permission to bring her claim.

The implications

This case is a clear application of the Court of Appeal’s decision in Berger v Berger [2013] EWCA Civ 1305. Where there has been significant delay in bringing a claim it is not enough for an applicant to rely on the fact that they have a good claim and that the estate has not been distributed. There needs to have been a significant, genuinely unforeseen change in circumstances outside of the applicant’s control in order to justify the delay.