Cohabiting couples: your rights under the IPFDA

In previous articles, (here and here) we discussed how the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (IPFDA) can allow claims to be made against someone’s estate. Such claims seek ‘reasonable financial provision’ from the estate and, if successful, can alter the effects of someone’s Will. They can also alter what happens when there is no valid Will.

However, you may not be aware of just who is entitled to make such claims. The word ‘inheritance’ almost brings with it the idea of property being passed down to younger generations. So you would be forgiven for thinking that IPFDA claims are only brought by sons and daughters.

In fact, a number of different classes of people can claim. Spouses might be the next type of relation that springs to mind but what about people who are cohabiting?

Well, for completeness, here is a list of the kinds of people who can bring a claim against the deceased’s estate using the IPFDA:

  • Children of the deceased
  • Spouses or civil partners of the deceased
  • Cohabitees of the deceased – although with certain restrictions (discussed below).
  • Former spouses or former civil partners of the deceased – provided they have not formed a later marriage or civil partnership.
  • Anyone treated by the deceased as their child
  • Anyone being maintained by the deceased (either wholly or partly)

Restrictions on cohabitees claiming through the IPFDA

Cohabitees can therefore make IPFDA claims. However, to be eligible they must have:

  • Lived in the same household as the deceased for at least 2 years
  • Lived with the deceased as though they were husband and wife, or as though they were civil partners.

The recent case of Martin v Williams [2017] EWHC 491 (Ch) concerned a cohabitee bringing an IPFDA claim. It illustrates not just the challenges faced by cohabitee claimants, but also demonstrates the quirks of IPFDA claims in general.

Background of the case

At the time of his death, in 2014, Norman Martin had been living with Joy Williams. Mr Martin had separated from his wife, Maureen Martin, in 1994. He began living with Mrs Williams around the same time. However, Mr and Mrs Martin did not undertake any divorce proceedings and remained on apparently good terms – even continuing in business together.

Upon Mr Martin’s death, his Will took effect. This had been written in 1986, although it had been updated with a codicil in 1995. Mr Martin left his entire residuary estate (essentially everything left over after specific gifts and debts are dealt with) to Mrs Martin. It appears that Mrs Williams received nothing.

Mr Martin and Mrs Williams owned equal shares of the property in which they were cohabiting. However, as they owned the house as ‘tenants in common’, Mr Martin’s share of the house formed part of his estate. As an aside, if Mr Martin and Mrs Williams had owned the property as ‘joint tenants’, Mr Martin’s share would have automatically passed to Mrs Williams.

However, Mrs Martin, as the beneficiary of her late husband’s Will, therefore inherited his 50% share. The remaining 50% share of the house naturally still belonged to Mrs Williams.

Mrs Williams brought a claim under the IPFDA, arguing that Mr Martin’s Will did not make reasonable financial provision for her maintenance.

The claim was first considered by the Central London County Court, who awarded Mrs Williams the remaining 50% share of the house. Mrs Martin appealed the decision, however, and the case was brought before the High Court.

Several aspects of the High Court’s decision are worth highlighting:

1 – The obstacles faced by a cohabitee making an IPFDA claim

Arguably, cohabitees face more stringent requirements than any other class of eligible claimant under the IPFDA. In addition to satisfying the conditions noted above, but they must also show that the reasonable financial provision for which they are claiming is required for their maintenance.

Now, it should be noted that this requirement is also imposed upon all other kinds of IPFDA claimant – all except for spouses or civil partners. Spouses or civil partners only have to show that it would be ‘reasonable in all the circumstances of the case’ for them to receive the financial provision they are claiming.

So if, for example, a spouse received nothing in his deceased wife’s Will, but had a comfortable income of his own, this fact would not necessarily prevent him receiving an award from his wife’s estate through an IPFDA claim. A cohabitee in the same situation, however, would likely receive no award as it would not be needed to maintain him.

In other words, there is a significant distinction created between people who are spouses and people who are living as spouses. The High Court expressly noted this distinction in their decision.

2 – The uncertainty surrounding IPDFA claims

If you are considering an IPFDA claim, their unpredictable nature should always be borne in mind. In Mrs Williams’s claim, the High Court ruled that several aspects of the County Court judge’s decision-making process were incorrect. In the end, they allowed Mrs Martin’s appeal on several points.

Similarly, the high-profile case of Ilott v Mitson was considered by numerous courts before its final decision by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overturned a decision by the Court of Appeal, which itself had overturned a previous decision.

Also, judges are given a great deal of freedom in this area of law when deciding which factors are significant and which are not. It is telling that the Supreme Court in Ilott v Mitson called for a greater level of direction from lawmakers than that offered by the current framework of the IPFDA.

3 – A non-financial award for maintenance

Despite their criticisms of the County Court’s approach, the High Court ruled that Mrs Williams’s IPFDA claim should still succeed. However, they overturned the decision to award her Mr Martin’s 50% share of the house.

Instead, Mrs Williams was awarded a ‘life interest’ in Mr Martin’s share. In effect, this gave her the ability to stay in the house for her lifetime. Upon her death, however, the 50% share would revert to Mrs Martin.

Whilst this represents a significant reduction in value from Mrs Williams’s previous award, it nonetheless ensures her right to stay in the property if she wishes. The decision forms part of a growing trend, with courts often making non-monetary awards as ways of providing reasonable financial provision to worthy claimants.

What should I take away from this?

If you are cohabiting with a partner, it is important that you are aware of what their situation will be in the event of your death. Cohabitees receive much less protection from the law than spouses or civil partners and this situation extends far beyond just the IPFDA.

Mrs Williams’s case also highlights the importance of keeping your Will updated. Mr Martin’s main Will was written several years before the separation from his wife. It might not have reflected his intentions towards Mrs Williams at the time of his death. If he had wanted to provide for Mrs Williams, he should have amended his Will when he became estranged from his wife and began living with Mrs Williams. With that said, the case report does not provide full details of Mr Martin’s Will or his later codicil. Also, there is nothing to suggest, on the available information, that his arrangements did not reflect his intentions.

You should take time to consider your own position and make sure that your Will reflects your current wishes and your family’s circumstances. Also, if you possess property jointly, consider the way in which it is owned and whether that reflects your intentions.

If you are at all unsure about what would happen after you are gone, or you need to make changes, make sure that you seek specialist legal advice.

Need further help?

If you would like to discuss any of the topics raised in this article, or you would like advice on how to ensure your cohabiting partner is not disadvantaged after you are gone, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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