Ilott of cost and heartache over estate of estranged mother

The Supreme Court has today handed down its judgment in the well publicised dispute of Ilott v The Blue Cross and Others, bringing to an end a decade long probate dispute between an estranged daughter and charitable beneficiaries. 

In 2004, Melita Jackson died at the age of 70. Some 26 years previously, her daughter and only child, now called Heather Ilott, left home to live with her then boyfriend (of whom Mrs Jackson did not approve) at the age of 17. Whilst Mrs Ilott subsequently married her boyfriend, remains married to him and has had 5 children with him, Mrs Ilott's leaving home resulted in a lifetime of estrangement between Mrs Jackson and Mrs Ilott.

During the 26 year period of estrangement, there was very limited contact between the two. Three attempts at reconciliation failed and there was little meaningful contact between the parties.  It is perhaps not altogether surprising that Mrs Jackson therefore made no provision for her daughter in her will, instead deciding to leave the bulk of her £486,000 Estate to the RSPB, RSPCA and The Blue Cross. 

In a side letter made at the same time as her will in 2002, Mrs Jackson made clear that she felt no obligation to her daughter given the history between them and instructed her Executors to oppose any claim that Mrs Ilott may make against the Estate.

Under the Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependants) Act 1975,  qualified claimants may bring a claim against an Estate for maintenance in circumstances where they consider that insufficient financial provision has been made for them either under a will or under the rules in intestacy.  Section 3 of the 1975 Act sets out various factors to be considered when considering a claim under the 1975. Act but the critical test to be applied is whether, objectively viewed, reasonable financial provision for the claimant is made by a will/the intestacy rules.

Having been left nothing by her mother's will, in 2007, Mrs Ilott brought a claim against the Estate under the 1975 Act, asserting that reasonable financial provision had not been made for her.

In the course of the trial, it became clear that Mrs Jackson had made Mrs Ilott aware of her intentions, with District Judge Million finding that Mrs Ilott and her family had lived their lives without any expectation that they would be provided for by Mrs Jackson in her will.

District Judge Million concluded that Mrs Jackson's will did not make reasonable provision for Mrs Ilott, awarding her £50,000. In reaching that decision, District Judge Million took the view that the award should be limited in light of the lifetime of estrangement and Mrs Ilott's lack of expectation that she would receive any benefit.

Dissatisfied with that award, Mr Ilott appealed, seeking an increased provision from the Estate. At the same time, the charitable beneficiaries also appealed, challenging the conclusion that there had not been any reasonable provision. 

The charitable beneficiaries' appeal succeeded. Had the dispute ended there, Mrs Ilott would have been left with nothing, just as her mother intended. However, Mrs Ilott appealed again with the Court of Appeal overturning the decision that reasonable provision had been made in the will.

The Court of Appeal subsequently found itself having to also determine the question of what provision should be made for Mrs Ilott.  The Court of Appeal awarded Mrs Ilott £143,000 to purchase the house that she lived in and an option to receive a further £20,000 in one of more instalments (the latter aspect of the award being made in this manner to enable her to retain her state benefits).

The charitable beneficiaries appealed the Court of Appeal's increased award with the appeal being heard by the Supreme Court on 12 December 2016. The Supreme Court's judgment was formally hand down today. The result? The Supreme Court reinstated the original award of £50,000 made by District Judge Million.

The Supreme Court found that DJ Million had approached the determination of whether reasonable financial provision had been made in Mrs Jackson's will for her daughter correctly, DJ Million having considered each of the section 3 factors before making what he considered in all the circumstances to be an appropriate award. In the absence of any fundamental error, the Supreme Court held that there was no basis for District Judge Million's original order being overturned with the result that District Judge Million's order was restored.

Following the handing down of Supreme Court's judgment, it has been suggested by some that the judgment confirms the principle that people are free to do what they wish with their Estate and choose who will benefit from it when they die. I disagree.  That Lady Hale, Deputy President  of the Supreme Court saw it necessary to give a 8 page judgment highlighting the uncertainty that continues to surround this area of law and encouraging parliament to clarify the law to avoid similar disputes in future is telling. Until changes are made, this will remain an area fraught with difficulties.

Posted on: 15/03/2017

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

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