Supreme Court Overturns Estranged Daughter’s Claim on Mother’s Will

Only child Heather Ilott was rejected by her mother, Melita Jackson, at the age of 17 after she left home without her knowledge or agreement in 1978, to live with her boyfriend, who she later married.

Attempts at reconciliation failed, and when 70-year-old Mrs Jackson died in 2004 her will made no provision for her daughter. The estate, valued at nearly £500,000 was instead to be split between three animal charities.

Mrs Jackson wrote in a letter to lawyers: "I can see no reason why my daughter should benefit in any way from my estate. I have made it clear to my daughter... that she can expect no inheritance from me when I die." She explicitly instructed the executors of her will to fight any claim Mrs Ilott might make after her death.

Original appeal award supports housing need

Mrs Ilott did indeed make a claim, arguing that her mother had not made provision for her. She made an application under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 for "reasonable financial provision" from her mother's estate.

The law is normally used to benefit children or dependent relatives. This case is unusual because Mrs Ilott was an adult and financially independent from her mother when she made the claim.

An original settlement of £50,000 made by a district judge was appealed by Mrs Ilott, who said it was not generous enough. 

The Court of Appeal ruled that Mrs Ilott should be awarded £160,000, including £143,000 to buy her housing association home. The Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals argued that the appeal judges "fell into error" when deciding to increase the maintenance payout and that people should be free to choose beneficiaries in their will.

The previous judgment said that donations left to charities should be seen as a "windfall" and that they would have to demonstrate their need for the money outweighed the needs of disinherited family members. 

Original award restored, but wishes must be respected

This has now been overturned by the Supreme Court, which restored the original award. Mrs Ilott has no pension and lives on state benefits. She has five children and lived in a "modest" way, working as a bookkeeper for her actor husband who had "intermittent" work, the judgment said.

But in delivering the award, the Supreme Court added that not enough weight had been given to Mrs Jackson’s wishes, and that family relationships do not automatically override the needs of charities that would use the money for good causes.

The judges also said that the law around wills should be clarified to avoid similar cases arising in future.

In the interim, 5 clear points emerge:

  1. Weight will be attached to a person’s testamentary wishes;
  2. Estrangement between parent and child will be an important factor and will be treated with great caution in future;
  3. Maintenance is still not defined and stated that “It must import provision to meet the everyday expenses of living”;
  4. Housing is considered to be fundamental to maintenance, but in the form of a life interest rather than capital sum or outright gift;
  5. State benefits will be considered as a resource of the claimant and the court must consider whether they will continue to be received.

Future claims

While Mrs Jackson’s testamentary wishes have still been flouted, albeit to a smaller extent, the judgment reaffirms the principle that we're all free to choose who will benefit when we die.

It means that adult children are less likely to be able to make a successful claim against parents' estates if they are disinherited or are disappointed with the level of provision in a will. Only adult children who can demonstrate particularly straitened financial circumstances are likely to succeed.

For more guidance on the outcome of this landmark case and whether this may affect you, contact Alastair Sinclair, Anderson Rowntree’s Litigation Partner on 01798 422021 or email info@andersonrowntree.co.uk to discuss your situation