The case of Heather Ilott, who was cut out of her mother’s Will, made national headlines in the Summer of 2015.
Many reports indicated that it greatly improved an adult child’s chances of successfully claiming against their parents’ estate if they had been disinherited. But what truth is in these reports?
Heather had been estranged from her mother, Melita, since she was 17 because Melita had not approved of the man Heather went on to marry.
Years later, when she died, Melita left all of her £486,000 estate to several animal and bird protection charities, disinheriting Heather completely. Heather was still married to the same man and they had five children, but finances were so tight, they relied on state benefits.
Heather fought back by bringing a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, which acts as a safety net for certain categories of relatives and dependants in cases like this.
On her first application to court, Heather was awarded £50,000. However, the Court of Appeal overturned this decision, finding that Heather’s finances, even with state benefits, were at such a basic level that her award should be increased to £163,000. This enabled Heather’s family to buy their council house.
The Press Reports
Contrary to the press reports, Heather’s claim has not substantively altered the law, and does not mean that an adult child will almost always be successful if they claim against their parents’ estates. This is because one key point of Heather’s claim was that she was in real need of financial help. Her income and benefits did not meet her outgoings, and she had five dependent children to support. She was also an only child, so there were no other family members fighting for a share of Melita’s estate.
Cases Based on Facts
These are crucial elements in bringing a claim of this type, where the relative needs of the people involved will be balanced by the court - unless the claim is brought by a spouse or civil partner, who are entitled to claim for a greater share of the estate.
If Heather had been wealthy, the outcome of her case is likely to have been quite different but in any event, each case of this type will turn on its own facts.
Seek Professional Advice
Heather’s claim does however highlight the importance of making a professionally prepared Will. Firstly, because trained lawyers are alive to signs of a potential dispute when they prepare Wills and can advise on steps to take to address these at the time a Will is made.
Secondly, consider what the outcome would have been on the flip side, from Melita’s perspective, if she had not made a Will. Her entire estate would have passed to her family under the intestacy rules, and her personal desire to leave her estate to charity would not have been realised. Even after Heather brought her claim, approximately two-thirds of Melita’s estate still went to the charities named in her Will.
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