charitable organisations and contentious probate

Contentious Probate and Charitable Organisations

It is common practice for testators to leave money and other assets to charitable organisations in their will. Will disputes usually arise when family members disagree over the validity of a will or its availability of reasonable financial provision. However, in a situation where the beneficiary of a will is a charity, that organisation can become involved in a will dispute as the claimant or as the defendant.

The recent case of Ilot v The Blue Cross and Others [2017] UKSC 17 (Known as Ilot v Mitson) involved a will that left the testatrix’s entire estate to three charities and not to her daughter; the testator’s daughter challenged the will and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.


The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975

Claimants can apply to the courts for reasonable financial provision if the will of a testator they were dependant on has not made provision for their maintenance. This way of challenging a will does not ask the courts to question the validity of the will itself, but asks to make provision out of the estate for the claimant’s maintenance.

The Facts of Ilot v Mitson

The case involved a woman Ms Ilot, who applied to the courts for reasonable financial provision when her mother did not leave her anything in her will. The entire estate was left to the charities The Blue Cross, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the RSPCA.

Ms Ilot challenged the will under the Inheritance Act 1975, and at the court of first instance the judge granted her £50,000 for reasonable financial provision. Ms Ilot appealed the judgement to the Court of Appeal, where she was awarded an increased sum on £140,000 to account for difficulties the provision created for her benefits. When the case was appealed to the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal judgement was overturned and the sum reduced back to the original £50,000.

The Judgment

Notably, in her judgment in Ilot v Mitson, Lady Hale observed

the unsatisfactory state of the present law, giving as it does no guidance as to the factors to be taken into account in deciding whether an adult child is deserving or undeserving of reasonable maintenance.”

In addition to the issue of charities as defendants in a will dispute, Lady Hale pointed out the difficulties in applying the Inheritance Act to adult children of testators. The case was appealed partly because it was difficult to say whether the Court of Appeal judge had erred in awarding a higher sum to Ms Ilot, because of the lack of guidance on maintenance provisions for adult children of a deceased testator.

In his judgment, Lord Hughes said,

“charities depend heavily on testamentary bequests for their work, which is by definition of public benefit and in many cases will be for demonstrably humanitarian purposes. More fundamentally, these charities were the chosen beneficiaries of the deceased.”

The court focussed on the public benefit of leaving gifts to charitable organisations as well as the fact that the testatrix had chosen those charities to be beneficiaries in her will. This case serves as a striking reminder that the courts are under a duty in will disputes to decide, either whether the will is valid, or in Inheritance Act claims, how much financial provision is reasonable for the claimant. It is not for the courts to decide whether the provisions in a will are unfair, as it is generally the testator’s decision as to how they want their property to be distributed according to their wishes. It did not matter to the court whether it was unfair for Ms Ilot’s mother to refuse her an inheritance, as long as the will was valid and reasonable financial provision had been provided.

Further Possibilities for Charitable organisations

More recently there have been media reports of charitable organisations attempting to make Inheritance Act claims for reasonable financial provision when their regular donors do not include provision for charitable donations in their will. It has been argued that since charities rely heavily on lifetime donations, they may have cause to expect reasonable financial provision from the wills of their regular donors, as they are dependant on their generosity. However, such challenges have yet to be tested in the courts.

If you have been disappointed in a will because the testator has left significant amounts (or indeed the entirety of their estate) to a charity or charitable organisations, Will Claim solicitors may be able to assist. We specialise in handling will disputes and will be able to advise on the strength of your claim and the next steps you should take. To book an appointment, contact us, or complete our free claim assessment request to get the ball rolling.