The Supreme Court has upheld the principle of testamentary freedom and so if someone wishes to leave their estate to charity, such as in the case of Ilott v Mitson, adult children will find it hard to succeed under the Inheritance Act 1975

Gifts to charity – can they be challenged?

It’s not often that legal disputes over the contents of a will make the front pages – but a long running saga that has recently been concluded in the Supreme Court relating to gifts made to charity in a will at the expense of surviving children, has done just that.

Challenging a will under the Inheritance Act 1975

As we’ve mentioned before, under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, there are certain circumstances in which you can challenge a will in order to obtain a payment from the deceased’s estate – or an increase in the legacy you have been bequeathed. You must have been married to (or have been a partner) of the deceased, a child of the deceased, or dependant on him (or her) and you must prove that you have a reasonable need for financial provision for the court to agree.

The facts in Ilott v Blue Cross and others

The long running case of Ilott v Blue Cross and others, which has recently been concluded in the Supreme Court, looked specifically at the Inheritance Act 1975. It started life as Ilott v Mitson. Heather Ilott had been passed over in her mother’s will in favour of some animal charities, following an estrangement which had occurred many years previously. These fairly straightforward facts have led to a fairly tortuous legal saga, which you can read about here.

At the point where the Supreme Court heard the case, back in December 2016, the Court of Appeal had found in Ms Ilott’s favour a second time and awarded her £143,000 to purchase her house, plus £20,000. The charities appealed.

The Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court agreed with the charities, so the original decision now stands and Ms Ilott receives £50,000.  The real importance of the case comes from the guidance the Supreme Court gave in this, the first case where it has dealt with the provisions of the Inheritance Act.

  • It was clear that the mother had not wanted her daughter to benefit from the estate, and the Court of Appeal should have taken this in to account
  • The long estrangement had not been given enough weight by the Court of Appeal – although awards under the Inheritance Act are not designed to punish bad behaviour by a Claimant (or reward good behaviour).
  • Any award under the Inheritance Act 1975 impacts on the bequests to other beneficiaries. In the case of charities, many are reliant on legacies that they receive.
  • ‘Maintenance’ isn’t limited to subsistence level – what a Claimant might need to survive – and does not mean simply providing whatever the Claimant says they need.
  • Maintenance should be the provision of income rather than capital, but the Courts should look at the most appropriate way to provide that, for example in a lump sum which could generate both income and capital.
  • Unless the Claimant is the spouse of the deceased, they will probably need to show a moral claim on the estate, as well as the need for maintenance.
  • The Court has to consider (with evidence) what effect a judgment will have on state benefits, as these are a ‘resource’ available to a Claimant.

Inheritance Act claims in the future

The decision of the Supreme Court doesn’t mean that dependants can no longer claim ‘maintenance’ under the Inheritance Act 1975 – after all, Ms Mitson was granted £50,000. However, successful claims may be harder to prove. The decision of the Supreme Court confirms the importance of the principle of testamentary freedom – the right of an individual to dispose of their property in a will how they choose. As a result, an adult child living independently of the testator will find it much harder to succeed in claiming maintenance if the parent has chosen to disinherit them.

This case is also a valuable lesson in the length of time such disputes can take to resolve if dispute resolution is not used – or is unsuccessful. Ms Ilott brought her original claim in 2007 – so it has taken the best part of 10 years to resolve, not to mention the stress that will have been involved, and the uncertainty. Equally, and perhaps of more concern, we can only imagine the legal costs that will have been involved. If you are thinking of contesting a will, it’s worth considering the possibility of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation.

If you have been disappointed by the contents of will, get in touch – we can talk through your options, and advise on the next steps should you wish to take the matter further.