Claims by disinherited adult children against their parent's estate may now be getting easier

As a result of Monday’s Court of Appeal decision in Heather Ilott v (1) David Robert Mitson (2) Michael Peter Lane (Personal Representatives of the Deceased) (3) The Blue Cross (4) Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (5) Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals [2015] EWCA Civ 797 (27.7.15), it may now be easier for ‘disinherited’ adult children to bring a claim against their parent’s estate when no financial provision has been made for them, even when the circumstances in which the adult child has been left out of provision under the will were explained by the deceased in their will. The Court of Appeal’s decision will also have implications for the charity sector, which has previously relied on protection from the courts to preserve legacies to them.

The Court of Appeal held that it was no longer the case that adult children were only successful in bringing a 1975 Act application if their claim involved special circumstances or some moral obligation on the part of the deceased. Further, it was held that the existing means of the claimant adult child were not conclusive as to the appropriate level at which they were entitled to be maintained in the future. The Court of Appeal held that the resources of Heather Ilott, even with state benefits, were at such a basic level, that they outweighed the importance that would normally be attached to the fact that she was an adult child who had been living independently for many years. The Court of Appeal held that they could and should make reasonable financial provision out of the deceased’s estate for Heather Ilott’s maintenance so that her living expenses were relieved without affecting her state benefits.

Mrs Ilott brought a claim against the estate of her mother, Melita Jackson, under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 (“the 1975 Act”) for her maintenance as an adult child of the deceased, on the basis that her mother’s will did not make reasonable provision for her. When Melita Jackson died in 2004, her will, made in April 2002, made no provision for her estranged daughter, nor any member of her family but instead left her estate to three animal charities, with which she had had no connection during her lifetime.

In 2007, Melita’s Jackson’s estate had a value of approximately £486,000 when the case came before District Judge Million, who held that Melita Jackson had acted in an unreasonable, capricious and harsh way towards Heather but that both sides were responsible for the failure to build bridges. He awarded Heather a lump sum of £50,000 which was intended to represent an annual income of £4,000 per annum. Heather Ilott appealed that award but Parker J dismissed her appeal in 2014. Mrs Ilott then appealed to the Court of Appeal.

Lady Justice Arden found that DJ Million made two fundamental errors, which led her to conclude that the award should be set aside. The first was the District Judge’s finding that Heather Ilott’s lack of expectancy and her ability to live within her means meant that her award should be “limited”. The District Judge should have explained what the award might otherwise have been and to what extent it was limited but he did not do so. The second fundamental error was that the District Judge was required to calculate financial provision for Heather Ilott’s maintenance, yet he did not know what effect the award of £50,000 would have on her state benefits. He had made an assumption that the effect of a “large capital payment” (which would include an award such as he ultimately made) would disentitle the family to most, if not all, of their state benefits. Lady Justice Arden found that his failure to verify this assumption undermined the logic of the award.

The award made by DJ Million was therefore set aside and the Court of Appeal proceeded to make an award in favour of Mrs Ilott which had to be balanced against that of the Charities, but since they did not rely on any competing need they were not prejudiced by what may be a higher award than the court would otherwise need to make. The Court of Appeal awarded the sum of £143,000, which was the cost of acquiring the property, plus the reasonable expenses of acquiring it. A further sum was added to provide for a very small additional income to supplement Mrs Ilott’s state benefits, so that she had an option to receive a capital sum not exceeding of £20,000 out of the estate for this purpose.

Deborah Dinan-Hayward

Practice Areas: 
Family