Freedom to choose the beneficiaries of your will called into question by landmark ruling
Written by Cindy-Marie Leicester on August 11, 2015.
You may think that having a will sets in stone who will inherit your assets when you pass away but a recent landmark ruling by UK courts has called that into question.
The case involves a woman, Melita Jackson, who died in 2004 leaving her entire estate worth £500,000 to three animal charities – the RSPCA, the RSPB and Blue Cross. The will was contested by her estranged daughter, a mother on benefits, who fought an eight year battle through the courts to be awarded a part of her mother’s estate. The two were estranged when the daughter, Heather Ilott, left home to be with the man she went on to marry and have three children with. Neither party was willing to bury the hatchet and attempts at reconciliation failed.
Mrs Jackson stated to lawyers in writing prior to her death that she did not want her daughter to inherit any part of her estate and expressly instructed them to fight any claim. In spite of that, Mrs Ilott contested the will in 2007, basing her claim on a clause in the 1975 Inheritance Act which makes financial provision for those who have not inherited as a result of intestacy, because they have been disinherited completely or because they have not received as much as they need to survive. Her argument was that the act gave her the right to ‘reasonable provision’ from her mother’s estate.
A bitter battle ensued with the three charities fighting hard to defend the wishes of the deceased. An initial award of £50,000 was contested by the daughter and the case went to the Court of Appeal. In the end, judges ruled that Mrs Jackson’s wishes were ‘unreasonable, capricious and harsh’ and Mrs Ilott was awarded one third of the estate on the grounds that her mother leaving her out of the will left her in poverty and on the breadline, unable to clothe her children or go on holiday, and therefore failed to provide ‘reasonable provision’ for her daughter. They awarded her £164,000 to enable her to buy her housing association home and supplement her income from benefits which she would continue to receive.
Until now, the ‘reasonable provision’ clause has most often been applied to minors left out of wills. Lawyers fear that this ruling sets a precedent making it much easier for adult children disinherited by their parents to challenge a will and make a claim on their estate for ‘reasonable provision’. However as other legal commentators have pointed out the judgement will relieve the burden of care for the daughter from the state to the mother which was one of the original reasons for the passing of the 1837 Wills Act.
As a result, those who do wish to disinherit their children must take extra steps to ensure that their dying wishes are adhered to. In particular, they should put down clearly in writing why they do not wish to pass their assets to their offspring, and prove a link with the stated beneficiaries.
The case provides yet another example of why it is essential to seek expert advice when making a will to make absolutely sure that your assets end up going to your desired beneficiaries.