When writing your Will, you will declare who will receive your assets once you have passed away, be it your children, spouse, friends or even charity. This would normally be enforced by your executor who would, after your death, ensure that your assets are divided as per your Will. However, a recent Court of Appeal decision has questioned this process.
Mrs Jackson wrote a Will in June 2002, in which she left nothing to her estranged only daughter Heather Ilott, 54. Instead Jackson, who died two years later, bequeathed her £489,000 estate to the BBC Benevolent Fund, and three animal charities – the RSPB, RSPCA and Blue Cross. In a letter written to her solicitors before her death, she said that she did not want her daughter to receive any of her wealth: “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.”
Ilott challenged the will in 2007 using the right to ‘reasonable provision’ contained in the 1975 Inheritance Act. This allows a child to apply for an order under the Act if the Will of the deceased does not make 'reasonable provision' for them. Section 1(2) of the Act provides that, in the case of a child 'reasonable financial provision' means 'such financial provision as it would be reasonable in all the circumstances of the case for the applicant to receive for his maintenance'. Despite Ilott being estranged for 26 years after eloping at 17, and being fully aware that Jackson intended not to leave her any of the estate, Lady Justice Arden in the Court of Appeal awarded Ilott the sum of £164,000. This would allow Ilott to purchase her housing association home, have £20,000 left over to spend as she wished, as well as continue to receive her state benefits.
The Court of Appeal held that Ilott would live a life of poverty if she did not receive part of her mother's estate. Brie Stevens-Hoare QC, acting for Ilott, said Ilott had difficultly affording clothes for her family and was ‘limited in the food she could buy’. The judges acknowledged that Ilott and her husband earnt 'very small incomes' and that their monthly expenses were 'modest', showing no items of clothing, holidays or gifts. This was coupled with the fact that Jackson had almost no involvement with the charities she left her money to. Stevens-Hoare said this was due to Jackson being ‘unreasonable, capricious and harsh’ and not leaving money to the charities because she supported the work but out of spite.
It could be argued that this decision undermines a person's right to leave their assets to any party of their choosing. It is possible that when Wills are drawn up in future, they will need to be accompanied with explanations as to why a bequest is being left to a certain party in order to be enforced as per the wishes of the deceased. It can also be argued that disinherited children will now have more power to challenge their parent's Will. Gary Rycroft, a member of the Law Society’s wills and equity committee, said: “This ruling is saying that while you can still disinherit your children, you are going to have to explain why and show connections with those you are leaving the money to. “It is also very important because it seems to be making it easier for adult children to claim for reasonable financial provision in wills and has made the gap wider for them to do that.”
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