Can Courts ignore a Will?
Ilott v Mitson  EWCA Civ 797 finally reached the Court of Appeal at the end of July 2015. The Court of Appeal's decision was widely reported in national newspapers as an indication that Courts can now ignore wills (and a person's wish to exclude a particular person) in the face of claims from family members left with nothing.
Many adult children who have not been left anything by a parent may believe this case will support their claim against the estate. However, it is important that Ilott v Mitson is properly explained to clients and that the significance of the individual circumstances is understood.
Heather Ilott, the daughter of a widow, became estranged from her mother after running off with her boyfriend when she was 17. Heather Ilott and her boyfriend later married but the relationship between mother and daughter never improved and at the time of her mother's death in 2004, they had been estranged for 26 years.
Heather's mother had made a Will leaving her entire estate, which was worth just under £500,000, to various animal charities. Heather's mother also wrote a letter of wishes specifically addressing why she did not want any of her estate to go to Heather.
By the time of her mother's death, Heather had five children of her own, was unemployed and largely reliant on state benefits. Heather could not always afford clothes for her children and the family lived in a housing association property.
As a child of the deceased, Heather fell into one of the categories of persons eligible to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. As with all claims made under this Act which are not made by a spouse/civil partner, the Court had to assess whether Heather's mother's Will had made reasonable financial provision for Heather's maintenance. In doing so, the Court assessed the financial situation of Heather and the intended beneficiaries and the respective responsibilities of the mother towards Heather and the charities.
The Court of first instance held that Heather should receive £50,000 but on Heather's recent appeal, the Court of Appeal increased this sum to £164,000. The Court of Appeal stressed that Heather's finances, even with state benefits, were at such a basic level that they outweighed the importance that would normally be attached to the fact that she was an adult child who had been living independently for many years. The Court of Appeal also commented that whatever the charities received was essentially a windfall. The Court of Appeal therefore raised the sum Heather was awarded from her mother's estate to a sum which enabled the family to buy their council house.
The press generally interpreted this decision as a sign that there is now a greater risk of your Will being overturned by a family member's claim to your estate.
However, contrary to popular belief, Ilott v Mitson has not altered the law. Even though it seems surprising that a specified intention in a Will or letter of wishes can be ignored, each claim under the 1975 Act will turn on its own facts. It is important that people are reassured that in the vast majority of circumstances, making a clear Will accompanied by a detailed letter of wishes, will serve to ensure that their post-death plans are realised. Heather's claim was strengthened by her particularly impoverished financial situation and because there were no other family beneficiaries also fighting for a share.
Due to our breadth of experience in making and defending claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, our non-contentious team are highly experienced in drafting wills and letters of wishes which will help to prevent potential claims later down the line.