Ilott v Mitson – Challenges to Wills

When high profile cases are reported in the popular press the facts are almost always sensationalised and the significance of the decision exaggerated.

In many ways the recent Court of Appeal case of Ilott v Mitson is no exception although it does raise a number of issues that need to be considered seriously..

The facts are as follows:-

A Mrs Jackson died in 2004, aged 70. Her estate was worth just under £500,000. She left it to charities.
Mrs Jackson was a widow with only one child, being the Claimant, Mrs Ilott. They had been estranged for many years.
Mrs Illot was married with five Children and was not well off. She brought a claim against her Mother’s estate under the Inheritance Act 1975.

The Inheritance Act allows certain categories of persons to claim against the estate of a deceased person (usually a relative), where, as a result of a Will, or because there is no Will, they have not received reasonable financial provision.

Until this case it had generally been thought that an adult child could only make a successful claim if he/she was financially dependent on the deceased (perhaps due to physical or mental illness or other incapacity).

The outcome of the case was that Mrs Illot was awarded £143,000 to enable her to purchase the public sector rented house in which she lived and to meet the costs incurred in connection with the purchase. A further £20,000 was invested for her in a way that did not affect her entitlement to state benefits.

This case shows that an adult, living independently, can sometimes claim successfully against the estate of a deceased parent. The fact that the adult may not have been financially dependent and may have had no relationship with that parent will not always prevent them from doing so.

Although this was not made entirely clear in the press reports the Court placed emphasis upon the fact that the charitable beneficiaries to whom the estate had been left had no need for the money and that anything that they did receive was a “windfall”. Furthermore, Mrs Jackson had had no connection with the charities during her lifetime and this was also held to be significant. It also appears from the reports that Mrs Jackson had behaved unkindly towards her daughter during her lifetime and had been mainly responsible for the rift between them.

Informed opinion is that this case will not open the floodgates for disappointed adult children to claim against the estate of their deceased parents. However the publicity attached to it is bound to make it more likely that aggrieved individuals will seek legal advice with a view to making such a claim. Frequently, the Court will order that the legal costs of all parties should be borne by the estate thus reducing the money available for the beneficiaries named in the Will so there is likely to be some pressure on the other members of the family to offer money just to buy off the nuisance value of even the most undeserving claim.

However, it remains to be seen whether the charities that lost out as a result of this decision will appeal to the Supreme Court. If they do then the final outcome may be different.

So what can be done to avoid running into problems?

The best advice for any person who wishes to make limited or no provision for someone who might have expected to receive something is to have a Will drawn professionally by a Solicitor. The cost of a Will is very reasonable and anyone who tries to save a few pounds by buying a kit from the shop or making a Will over the internet is asking for trouble. The Will (or a separate letter of explanation left with it) should contain a detailed and reasoned explanation of the circumstances that led to the decision to reduce that person’s provision. This will give the estate the best possible chance of resisting a potential claim by putting a potential claimant at risk of having to pay the costs.

If you wish to discuss any of the issues raised in this post please contact any of our Offices.

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