Supreme Court landmark decision:
The long awaited judgment in the saga of Ilott v Mitson & Ors[i] is a landmark decision by the Supreme Court. The result overturns the previous Court of Appeal judgment, which itself had caused shockwaves. It appeared to give almost no weight to the clearly expressed views of the late Mrs Jackson who did not want her only child, Mrs Illott to benefit from her £500,000 estate. Instead, she left everything to the animal charities. In a decision that will attract considerable attention, the Supreme Court has largely upheld the wishes of Mrs Jackson, and made serious criticisms as to the confused state of the present law, which led to such prolonged proceedings.
In 2004, Mrs Melita Jackson died leaving a Will giving most of her £500,000 estate to Animal Charities. She had one daughter, Heather Illott. They had been estranged for 26 years. Heather had left home aged 17 to live with her boyfriend. Mrs Jackson disapproved. Mrs Jackson had left a detailed letter for her executors, explaining her decision to exclude Heather from her Will and that she had made it clear to Heather that she would receive anything under the will.
By the time of the latest hearing, Heather was in her 50’s and her husband had been made redundant. They were in receipt of benefits of around £13,000 a year, and their annual income totalled £4,665. The Court of Appeal said Mrs Jackson had been “…unreasonable, capricious and harsh.”
The Court of Appeal Decision
Mrs Illott was awarded £143,000 to buy the rented home she lived in. A further £20,000 was granted as ‘additional income’. This was a substantial increase beyond the £50,000 granted on an earlier hearing by a District Judge. She succeeded on her application for an award for maintenance under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“IPFD”). The Court of Appeal stated that it was applying the law as set out in the statute, including considering all relevant factors under s.3, such as:
- Financial resources and needs of claimant;
- Financial resources and needs of any other claimant;
- Financial resources and needs of beneficiaries;
- Obligations and responsibilities of deceased towards claimants and beneficiaries;
- Size and nature of estate;
- Disabilities of claimants and beneficiaries;
- Any other matter
Supreme Court Judgment
The Supreme Court highlighted errors in the approach by the Court of Appeal. Their order was set aside and the District Judge’s order restored.
Lady Hale in her judgment reviews the history of the Act and preceding legislation. She comments on the unsatisfactory state of the law, giving as it does 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 approach under the Act invariably involves a value judgment, which may be problematic as there is a wide range of opinion among the public and the judiciary about the circumstances in which adult descendants ought or ought not to be able to make a claim on an estate which would otherwise go elsewhere.
For an applicant other than a spouse or partner, reasonable financial provision is limited to what it would be reasonable for her to receive for maintenance only. This is an objective standard, to be determined by the court. The limitation to maintenance provision represents a deliberate legislative choice and demonstrates the significance attached by English law to testamentary freedom. Maintenance cannot extend to any or everything which it would be desirable for the claimant to have, but is not limited to subsistence level. The level at which maintenance may be provided is clearly flexible and falls to be assessed on the facts of each case, as at the date of hearing.
Although maintenance is by definition the provision of income rather than capital, it may be provided by way of a lump sum. As to the first suggested error, the process suggested by the Court of Appeal is not warranted by the Act. The Act does not require the judge to fix some hypothetical standard of reasonable provision and then increase or discount it with reference to variable factors. All of the s.3 factors, so far as they are relevant, must be considered, and in light of them a single assessment of reasonable financial provision should be made.
The District Judge worked through each of the s.3 factors, and was entitled to take into account the nature of the relationship between Mrs Jackson and Mrs Ilott in reaching his conclusion. As to the second suggested error, the District Judge specifically addressed the impact on benefits twice. The Court of Appeal’s criticism that his award was of little or no value to Mrs Ilott was unjustified.
Reasonable financial provision can in principle include the provision of housing, but ordinarily by creating a life interest rather than a capital and inheritable sum, which possibility appeared not to have been considered by the Court of Appeal.
To the extent that the benefits means test was relevant, it was likely to apply also to the additional sum of £20,000 apparently awarded with a view to avoiding that test. The statement in the Court of Appeal that a claimant in receipt of benefits should be treated in the same way as a disabled claimant was problematic; what must have been meant was that receipt of means tested benefits is likely to be a relevant indication of a claimant’s financial position. Finally, the Court of Appeal’s order gave little weight to Mrs Jackson’s very clear wishes and the long period of estrangement. The Court of Appeal’s justification for this approach was that the charities had little expectation of benefit either.
Lady Hale said this approach should be treated with caution, given the importance of testamentary bequests for charities, and because the testator’s chosen beneficiaries, whether relatives, charities or otherwise, do not need to justify their claim either by need or by expectation.
Media comment had seized on the Court of Appeal decision, fearing that people’s wishes in their Will are not being followed. The Supreme Court judgment should now reassure those concerned that the courts were unduly interfering in the wishes of testators about who should inherit. The judgment provides more clarity for those involved who may object to a decision made by a relative to exclude them from the Will and also for those, executors and beneficiaries alike, involved in issues concerning “reasonable financial provision” when a challenge to a Will is being considered.
The Court has to decide whether the Will makes
“reasonable financial provision”
according to IPFD, for the adult child of the deceased. The trial judge is not exercising a discretion in reaching a decision, but making a value judgment based on an assessment of the statutory provisions which have to be taken in to account. It is solely the Act which sets out the factors for the exercise of the court’s decision.
- Based on this judgment, people are still entitled to cut their children out of their Will if they wish. However, there will have to be good reason shown. How and why they are making other provision needs to be explained, and what their connection is to any particular charity to which they wish to leave their estate.
In view of the Supreme Court’s guidance on IPFD:
- The upshot is likely to be that adult children who have been excluded may now be less encouraged than suggested by the Court of Appeal decision to dispute a Will by arguing that they have not been left reasonable financial provision.
- The Court will still take in to account any accompanying letter of wishes. If anything, these may now be more important than before, and this case can be seen in the context of its own particular and quite unusual circumstances.
Please note this information is provided by way of example and may not be complete and is certainly not intended to constitute legal advice. You should take bespoke advice for your circumstances.