Today, the UK Supreme Court finally settled a long-running Will dispute. The Will of Melita Jackson has been at the centre of a prominent case, widely known as Ilott v Mitson  UKSC 17. The Supreme Court’s judgment comes nearly 13 years after Mrs Jackson’s death. And the result? To reinstate a court order made ten years ago, in 2007.
But whilst, at a glance, this could be seen as a huge waste of time, the case tackles a number of interesting issues concerning Wills and the rights of those who make them.
Mrs Jackson died in 2004 and her Will left the majority of her estate to various charities. Her daughter, Heather Ilott, received nothing. Mrs Ilott had been estranged from her mother since leaving home at the age of 17, moving in with her then boyfriend of whom Mrs Jackson did not approve. Mother and daughter remained estranged until Mrs Jackson’s death, despite Mrs Ilott marrying her boyfriend and having 5 children with him. Several attempts at reconciliation were made over this 26-year period but, unfortunately, none were successful.
Mrs Jackson’s Will included a Letter of Wishes. This is a document which can be used to indicate your intentions to the executors named in your Will. Whilst, a Letter of Wishes can provide clarity to certain matters after you have passed away, your executors don’t have to follow these wishes.
Mrs Jackson’s Letter of Wishes made her feelings about Mrs Ilott very clear. It detailed an episode in which Mrs Ilott had upset Mrs Jackson and stated, “Therefore she receives nothing from me at my death.”
Mrs Ilott brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (IPFDA) against Mrs Jackson’s estate. The estate was valued at around £486,000. Mrs Ilott’s financial means, by contrast, were limited and her household was supported by several benefits and tax credits.
Initially, in a County Court hearing in 2007, Mrs Ilott was awarded £50,000. However, she appealed the decision, seeking a higher award. Several hearings followed, with the case being considered by various courts. In 2016, however, the Court of Appeal overturned the £50,000 award, criticising the approach taken by the judge in 2007. Instead, the Court of Appeal ordered that Mrs Ilott should receive £143,000, with the intention that this money be used to buy the house her family rented outright. In addition, she was granted the option for a further £20,000, provided this would not cause her to be worse off with regard to the means-tested benefits she was receiving.
The matter was brought before the Supreme Court in December 2016 when those charities benefiting under Mrs Jackson’s Will appealed against the Court of Appeal’s decision. Three months later, they have now given their judgment.
The Supreme Court’s Judgment
The Supreme Court was keen to emphasise that each case had to be considered on its own facts; a factor which might be given significant weight in one case (such as the behaviour of the people involved) may be less persuasive in another case.
Even so, other courts will likely view the Supreme Court’s approach as definitive, at least in terms of the issues to consider and how to assess them. Therefore, any tendencies in the Supreme Court’s decision will be influential.
One such tendency is apparent from the Supreme Court criticism of the Court of Appeal. They felt the Court of Appeal did not give enough weight to certain factors when making their award. These include:
- The ‘quarter of a century of estrangement’;
- The ‘very clear wishes’ of Mrs Jackson;
- The effect on the beneficiaries of the Will. The charities had been chosen by Mrs Jackson and she wanted them to receive her money. This meant they should not be required to show a ‘need’ for the money in the same way that Mrs Ilott did. Also, recognition should be given to how any award to Mrs Ilott naturally reduced the benefit they received from the Will by reducing the estate funds;
- The nature of maintenance. Unless the person claiming under the IPFDA is a spouse of the deceased, IPFDA claims can only be made for reasonable financial provision to maintain the person claiming. A son, for example, living comfortably but making a claim against their late father’s estate is likely to fail in demonstrating that financial provision is needed for their maintenance, even if the estate is a very rich one.
That the Supreme Court believed more weight should be given to these factors in particular shows a tendency towards upholding the rights of the person making the Will. Specifically, their rights to: distribute their property however they wish; benefit whoever they want; and only have these overridden in cases of genuine need.
This has long been seen as a fundamental legal right in English law. Nonetheless, it is not an absolute one.
The Supreme Court recognised that Mrs Ilott had not been given reasonable financial provision under Mrs Jackson’s Will. Also, acknowledging Mrs Ilott’s financial circumstances, the Supreme Court considered she should receive an award for her maintenance. They held the 2007 award of £50,000 to be appropriate and so overturned the Court of Appeal’s decision.
What could this decision mean for me?
The case does not protect your Will from the possibility of legal challenges. Nor does it confirm an unassailable right to dispose of your property how you wish through your Will. It does, however, show the highest Court in the land’s approach to a tricky area of law: an approach which will prove persuasive in the resolution of similar cases.
If you have made a Will which ‘cuts out’ or disinherits a spouse or relative, the possibility exists for them to claim reasonable financial provision from your estate after you are gone. Many different circumstances would be looked at by a court when in determining whether their claim would be successful.
Unfortunately, this makes such cases difficult to predict with any certainty. Indeed, Lady Hale used her judgment in the Ilott case to call for greater clarity in the law. With this in mind, it is important to seek specialist legal advice should an IPFDA claim be possible.