The decision reaffirms the general principle of testamentary freedom, and clarifies a number of issues under the Act.

Facts of the case

The decision is the last stage in a legal battle – formerly known as Ilott v Mitson – that began in 2007 between Heather Ilott and a group of three animal welfare charities: the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and Blue Cross. These charities were the beneficiaries of the will of Ilott's mother, Melita Jackson.

Jackson and Ilott had been estranged for many years, and she had drafted her will, and a letter of wishes, to ensure that Ilott would not receive anything from her estate. She provided no financial support to Ilott after their estrangement.

Following Jackson's death in 2004, Ilott made a claim against her mother's estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, which allows a court to grant a deceased person's children an award for 'reasonable provision' from the estate. Ilott's claim was opposed by the three charities.

District court

At first instance, the district judge awarded Ilott GBP50,000 from Mrs Jackson's GBP486,000 estate. Ilott appealed this amount as too low, and there followed two further hearings in which the award was first struck out entirely, then reinstated.

Court of Appeal

In July 2015, the case went to the England and Wales Court of Appeal (EWCA), which upheld Ilott's appeal and tripled her award. New Square Chambers explains that the EWCA overturned the first instance decision on two grounds: 'that [the district judge] had limited her award unfairly by reference to her limited means and living expenses; and that he had failed properly to investigate the effect of the award on her benefits entitlement'. The EWCA increased her award to GBP143,000 to buy a property, and a cash sum of GBP20,000 to provide additional income. The three charities appealed, arguing that Ilott's award should be reduced to the original GBP50,000.

Supreme Court

The EWCA's ruling has now been unanimously set aside by the Supreme Court, which held that the district judge had not made any of the errors identified by the Court of Appeal, and restored the district judge's original GBP50,000 award to Ilott.

The 1975 Act required the district judge to consider all of the factors set out in s3 – which he had done. He had been entitled to take into account the nature of the relationship between Jackson and Ilott.

Moreover, the judge had, in fact, addressed the impact on Ilott's benefits, and decided that much of the GBP50,000 award could have been spent on essential household improvements, which fell within the provision of maintenance of daily living, and would have avoided Ilott retaining sufficient capital to disqualify her from means-tested state benefits.

James Aspden, of law firm Wilsons Solicitors LLP, which acted for the successful charity appellants in the case, said: 'The Supreme Court confirmed that our choice of beneficiaries should be respected, and that judges should not rewrite our wills simply because they may think we should have acted differently.'

The Supreme Court – and Lady Hale in particular – was critical of the 1975 Act's wording, noting that it gives no guidance as to the weight of the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether an adult child is deserving or undeserving of reasonable maintenance. The Supreme Court judgment stated: 'It may be less obvious, but is also true, that the circumstances of the relationship between the deceased and the claimant may affect what is the just order to make. Sometimes the relationship will have been such that the only reasonable provision is the maximum which the estate can afford; in other situations, the provision which it is reasonable to make will, because of the distance of the relationship, or perhaps because of the conduct of one or other of the parties, be to meet only part of the needs of the claimant.'

Testamentary freedom

Aspden said the ruling 'confirms very clearly that we are, in general, free to choose who will inherit our property when we die. It clears up a number of points where the law had become uncertain and will enable people drafting wills to give clearer advice to their clients. The most important message it sends is that your wishes matter, and that if you choose to record those wishes in a will, they will be listened to.'

Andrew Francis, of Serle Court, whose chambers acted for Ilott, said: 'The Supreme Court's judgment will be reassuring for those who advise people on drafting their wills. The court has underlined the importance of people's wishes about who should benefit under their will when the courts decide inheritance disputes. For those making wills, the Supreme Court's decision should reassure them that their wishes are likely to be a significant factor for the courts in the future. Although each case is fact-specific, today's ruling is significant in its support for individual choice and freedom in making wills.'

Stephen Richards, of law firm Withers, commented: '[T]he Supreme Court has made the right decision and its judgment knocks back claims from estranged family members looking to change the terms of a will, although the door remains open...It is important for individuals that they can be confident their will is going to be respected, and it is important to the good work of charities that they can assume their benefactors' wishes will be honoured.'

Paula Myers, of Irwin Mitchell, said that the judgment 'could potentially make it more difficult for adult children to challenge their parent's wills under the Inheritance Act...It may also give peace of mind for people writing a will that their wishes will be followed, and children can still be disinherited, unless certain criteria are met by the challenging party.'

(Ilott v The Blue Cross and others, 2017 UKSC 17)

Sources

UK Supreme Court
Supreme Court (Judgment, PDF file)
New Square Chambers
STEP news story (30 July 2015): Ilott’s 1975 Act award tripled on further appeal

This article incorporates material originally published by STEP in their UK News Digest of 16 March 2017 and is reproduced with their permission. Click here to view STEP news items.

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