Could your will be overturned?
Written by Cindy-Marie Leicester on April 15, 2016.
Melita Jackson died 12 years ago, leaving an estate worth around £500,000 but a dispute over her last wishes remains unresolved pending a Supreme Court hearing which will determine once and for all who will get her money (if indeed there is any left after so many years of wrangling!).
There was clearly no love lost between Mrs Jackson and her daughter, Heather Ilott. The mother had been estranged from her child for 26 years, provided no financial support for her during her lifetime and disinherited her in her will, naming three animal charities – the RSPCA, the RSPB and the Blue Cross - as the beneficiaries of her estate. To make extra sure that her wishes were made clear, Mrs Jackson wrote a letter to accompany her will explaining that her daughter’s lifestyle choices at the age of 17 (she eloped) had caused an ‘irreconcilable rift’ between them. Just to make absolutely sure that there was no room for doubt over her intentions, Mrs Jackson left a second letter addressed to her executors instructing them to defend any claim her daughter might bring against her estate. She really didn’t want her daughter getting her hands on the money!
Ignoring her mother’s wishes, Mrs Ilott made a claim on the estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 which, along with the Wills act of 1963, was designed to ensure those with money did not shirk responsibility for their dependents when they died, thereby burdening the state. According to the act children are entitled to contest a will and claim for reasonable financial provision if they have not received sufficient provision from the estate of their parents.
Mrs Ilott, who was on a low income of just £7,000 and lived on state benefits, was initially awarded £50,000 from the estate, but after appealthis was increased to £164,000, granted to her to buy a house. The judge ruled that her income was so low that it rendered the Inheritance Act’s requirement that the applicant was dependent on her mother null and void. The decision was surprising because the act had previously been applied largely to minors.
The charities concerned have appealed the decision and the case will now be taken to the Supreme Court who will decide whether the Court of Appeal’s decision to place the needs of family over and above non-related beneficiaries, against the very clear wishes of the deceased, is correct.
The case raises questions about the freedom of individuals to choose their beneficiaries. The UK differs from the majority of EU countries in that it does not have forced heirship legislation which requires an individual to leave at least a part of their estate to close relatives such as spouses and children. You might think that would give you the absolute freedom to choose who will inherit your assets but the case of Ilott vs Mitson calls that into question.
If you wish to disinherit, you should always take expert legal advice on how best to structure your estate to ensure that your wishes are adhered to. #
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