Supreme Court rules in favour of animal charities

inheritance

A long-running inheritance dispute reached its conclusion today when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favour of three animal charities.

The case concerned Mrs Heather Ilott, who was estranged from her late mother for much of her life, ever since she left home at the age of 17. When the mother eventually died, she left her large estate to three animal charities – the Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

Mrs Ilott, who lived in “straitened financial circumstances” and depended on state benefits, claimed a proportion of the estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act1975. This proved partially successful: she was awarded £50,000 but was unhappy with this amount and appealed. She took her claim to the Court of Appeal but her first appeal was dismissed. A second appeal, however, succeeded, years after the original ruling, when her award was almost tripled, to £143,000. Her mother had treated Mrs Ilott “unreasonably, capriciously and harshly” the Court ruled.

But the three charities pursued the case, and were granted permission to take their case to the Supreme Court. They argued the original award of £50,000 was the correct one and should not have been set aside. They questioned the principles on which the provision of adult children should be assessed in such circumstances.

The Supreme Court has now granted their appeal and reinstated the original award, saying the Court of Appeal had been wrong to attribute errors in law to the Judge at the original hearing. For claimants who were not partners or spouses, ‘reasonable financial provision’, as defined by the Inheritance Act, is limited to the kind of award the claimant would have received in maintenance or as a lump sum in lieu of maintenance, if they had been in a marriage or marriage-like relationship.

Delivering the lead judgement, Lord Hughes wrote this provision demonstrated “the significance attached by English law to testamentary freedom” – i.e. the freedom to dispose of your estate in your will as you see fit.

The District Judge who made the original award had been entitled to take into account the nature of the relationship between Mrs Ilott and her mother, continued Lord Hughes. He was critical of the Court of Appeal ruling which had increased Mrs Ilott’s award, saying:

“…critically, the order under appeal would give little if any weight to the quarter of a century of estrangement or to the testator’s very clear wishes. “

This approach had been justified by noting the charities had had little expectation of provision under the will. But, His Lordship said, beneficiaries of a will do not need to justify their claims.

Graham Coy, a Partner in Stowe Family Law’s London office, said while the charities’ legal costs would account for a substantial portion of their increased award, they had succeed in establishing clear principles as to how such claims should be dealt with.

 “The key issues within these proceedings were, on the one hand, respecting the late mother’s wishes and on the other hand whether or not the Court should intervene to provide financial assistance to her middle-aged daughter who had been estranged from her Mother for decades, thereby relieving the taxpayer of some of the financial burden of supporting the family. The Court also had to take into account that charities such as these depend for their continued existence on legacies and there need to be clear guidelines as to when Judges should intervene and possibly thwart the intentions of people when they make their Wills – and when they shouldn’t.”

Photo courtesy of TaxRebate.org.uk via Flickr

Stowe Family Law Web Team

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2 comments

Andrew - March 15, 2017 at 12:16pm

I hope the Respondent has to pay the costs so far as her means – including the award to her – will permit. Does anyone know what order for costs was made?
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A good result.

Ken - March 15, 2017 at 2:44pm

I agree with Andrew’s comments and am also interested in the order for costs. However, after some 50 years working in the legal profession, principally in the area of wills and probate, I just wonder how it could have been allowed to get this far. Sadly to the outside world I can now see comments that the only winners in this case are the lawyers.

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