Yesterday, the Court of Appeal handed down its final judgement in the case of Ilott v Mitson. It marked the end of a mammoth 10 year legal battle by Heather Ilott to obtain a share of her late mother’s estate. The case is seen as a land mark decision and will have a significant impact on how wills are drafted and executed in the future.
Mrs’s Ilott mother, Melita Jackson, died in 2004. She and her daughter had been estranged for over 26 years; a rift caused by Mrs Jackson’s disapproval at her daughter’s choice of husband. The rift never healed and Mrs Jackson took the decision to disinherit her daughter, leaving all of her estate to three animal charities. Mrs Ilott challenged her mother’s will under the Inheritance Act 1975 on the ground that it failed to provide her with reasonable financial provision. Mrs Ilott has now succeeded and been awarded £164,000 out of her mother’s £500,000 estate.
The significance in Mrs Ilott’s case becomes apparent when we consider the relationship between the parties. For some time it has been possible for people to claim against a deceased persons estate under the Inheritance Act 1975. However, prior to this case, most successful claims were made by either spouses or children who were dependent on the deceased parent. This was not the case with Mrs Ilott, who was an adult at the time of her mother’s death and had not been financially dependent on her for over 26 years.
In explaining their decision, the Court of Appeal highlighted three primary reasons why they have ignored the provisions of Mrs Jackson’s will:
They considered Mrs Jackson’s actions to be unreasonable.
They noted that Mrs Ilott was suffering from significant financial hardship.
They noted that Mrs Jackson had no genuine connection to the charities to which she had left her estate and had not properly explained why they had been preferred over her daughter.
For some time now, there has been a growing tendency for the courts to recognise the ‘moral claim’ of relatives, particularly spouses and children, over the estate of a relative. Courts have become increasing hostile at the attempts of parents to disinherit their children and have started to jump on any ambiguity in the will to circumvent such an attempt. Mrs Ilott’s case could be seen as the high-water of this new trend.
The consequences of the decision in Ilott v Mitson are clear. Any ambiguity in your will creates a ground on which it can be challenged. Great care must be taken in order to ensure that your wishes are honoured and that a costly challenge to the estate after your death is avoided. Professional advice and a well drafted will are essential!