Supreme Court rules in favour of animal charities in will dispute

    Supreme Court rules in favour of animal charities in will dispute

    In March 2017 the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ilott v The Blue Cross and others (previously known as Ilott v Mitson) was handed down. Despite a number of years passing, practitioners are still none the wiser on the likely provision that should be made for an adult child.

    The background

    The claim in question involved an adult daughter of the deceased. She was excluded from her mother’s will as a result of a family falling out when the deceased’s daughter was 17 years old.

    Subject to ancillary gifts made under the will, the deceased left her residuary estate (amounting to in the region of £480,000) to three charities; the Blue Cross, the RSPB, and the RSPCA.

    Mrs Ilott, who did not work and was on benefits at the time, brought a claim against her mother’s estate for a reasonable financial provision, something children are able to do (depending on the circumstances) under the Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependants) Act 1975.

    Final decision

    The claim went through many appeals over the course of 13 years and was finally dealt with in the Supreme Court in December 2016, with the judgment being handed down in March 2017.

    While the Supreme Court has clarified that a testator’s wishes will still hold some weight, it has not been able to confirm how much weight should be applied to those wishes, or to the other factors the court must take into consideration when deciding a claim. The decision, therefore, leaves us with no clarity over what would be reasonable taking into consideration all the circumstances for an adult child to receive.

    In fact, the Supreme Court judges specifically stated that had the judge at the first hearing awarded Mrs Ilott the sum subsequently awarded to her in the Appeal Court (which was overturned by the Supreme Court), then that too would have been a valid decision for the judge to make.

    It is clear from this case that the court’s discretion remains unfettered. Despite this, Lady Hale commented that while the court has wide powers, judges have little guidance as to how their powers are to be applied when it comes to claimants under the 1975 Act.

    Potential claimants and defendants alike, therefore, need to be aware that the court will take into account all of the relevant factors. They will likewise seek to balance the needs of the existing beneficiaries against those of the potential claimant, even if it appears the existing beneficiaries have no financial need (such as was argued as the position with charities).

    As it is a value judgment made on all the evidence available at the time of the first hearing, it was accepted by the Supreme Court that there will inevitably be a lack of consistency in the decisions being made by the courts.

    The outcome

    Unfortunately the above leaves practitioners, claimants, and defendants with little clarity over the position on what is reasonable for an adult child to receive.

    In essence, despite its long-anticipated decision, it is the writer’s opinion that the judgment made little difference to the law as it previously stood. This leaves difficulties for those involved in such a claim when considering how or whether to proceed, settle, or defend a claim.

    Following on from this judgment, subsequent cases have been heard which provide some assistance to practitioners on the way the courts are likely to react to claims made by adult children. That said, given the courts’ absolute discretion balanced against differing circumstances in each claim, any attempt to predict with certainty an outcome would prove futile.

    If you need help or advice in relation to an inheritance dispute, please contact a member of the Dispute Resolution Team.

    [Originally published in March 2017; updated in January 2020]

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