Does an adult child have to have a moral claim to succeed under the Inheritance Act?

The ‘moral claim’ of an adult child

Does an adult child have to have a ‘moral claim’ to part of a parent’s estate in order to succeed in a claim under the Inheritance Act?

The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 allows an adult child to claim maintenance from the estate of a parent who has disinherited him entirely or left him only a small legacy. Whether the claim succeeds depends on the outcome of a careful balancing act. It requires the court to look at the circumstances of the claimant, and of other beneficiaries or potential claimants, and the size of the estate itself. A claimant who is able to support him or herself independently may have to show a moral claim in order to succeed with the claim.

The circumstances of the Claimant

The Inheritance Act, and more particularly claims by adult children under the Act, has been in the spotlight recently as it was the subject of a long running dispute recently determined by the Supreme Court. In the case of Ilott v Blue Cross & Others, the adult child, Heather Ilott, had been disinherited by her mother who disapproved of her choice of partner. The mother had rejected attempts at reconciliation and left her estate to a number of animal charities. The daughter had not done well in life, but lived independently with her partner and children, although most of their income came from benefits. She sought maintenance from her mother’s estate under the Inheritance Act, a claim the charities defended vigorously.

Within her arguments, Mrs Ilott asserted a moral claim to maintenance from her mother’s estate. The basis of this was that the estrangement was largely of the mother’s doing, and that she, the daughter, had attempted to seek a reconciliation, but had been rejected.

A moral claim – or some other obligation

It’s clear from the decision in Ilott that a moral claim is not an essential element of an Inheritance act claim. However, if the adult child is living independently and capable of doing so, there needs to be ‘something more’ for a claim for maintenance under the Act to succeed, however modest the income. This would be some kind of moral obligation, or some other responsibility owed by the parent to the child.

In the earlier case of re Coventry, the court made it clear that an adult child who was capable of supporting himself and had an income, albeit a small one, would not succeed in an Inheritance Act claim without ‘something more’:

There must, as it seems to me, be established some sort of moral claim by the applicant to be maintained by the deceased or at the expense of his estate beyond the mere fact of a blood relationship, some reason why it can be said that, in the circumstances, it is unreasonable that no or no greater provision was in fact made

Estrangement where the child sought reconciliation

In circumstances which bore some similarity to the Ilott case, the courts recently considered a case where the father had disinherited his children as they had not been to see him for many years. The claimant in Nahajec v Fowles, the Testator’s daughter from his second marriage, argued that the estrangement was largely due to her father’s behaviour and she had attempted reconciliations only to be rebuffed by him. The claim succeeded, and the daughter was awarded a sum to allow her to complete a veterinary nurse qualification.

Victims of abuse

There have been cases where an adult child has brought a claim against the estate of a parent who abused them. In the case of Marks v Shafier [2001] All ER (D) 193 (Jul), the court accepted that this could be sufficient to allow a claim under the Act. However, in the recent case of Ball v Ball, the abusing parent was the father and the will in question was the will of the mother, the abuser’s wife. Mrs Ball was upset that the children concerned took the abuse allegations to the police, after it had been dealt with within the family, and disinherited her children. In that case, the court made it clear that “…sexual abuse by someone other than the deceased does not have the same impact” [para 81 Ball v Ball].

There have been suggestions that the comments in Re Coventry about “some sort of moral claim” alluded to the need for a moral obligation in every Inheritance Act claim brought by an adult child. This is not the case. However, where an adult child is independent – however meagre that independence might be – there does need to be something more than just the relationship for the claim to succeed.

If you’d like to discuss the possibility of bringing an Inheritance Act claim for maintenance in respect of your parent’s will, we can help. Specialising in will disputes and Inheritance Act claims, we offer a free claim assessment, and will handle most claims on a ‘no win no fee’ arrangements.