The Ilott v Mitson Decision – Adult Children and Inheritance Disputes Briefing Note

The long running case of Ilott v Mitson has encouraged many adult children to investigate whether or not they can bring a claim against a deceased parent’s estate.

The final decision has today been published by the Supreme Court having heard an appeal on 12th December 2016.  hammer-719066_1280The case has highlighted a law that many people are entirely unaware of; the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. 

The Act allows adult children, amongst others, to bring a claim against the estate of someone who has died – whether or not they made a will. The argument is that the deceased has failed to make “reasonable financial provision” for them. The claim must be brought within 6 months of the date of the Grant of Probate.

Claims can be brought by illegitimate and adopted children as well as someone who was ‘treated as a child of the family’. This includes stepchildren and could also include grandchildren.

When a parent dies it can be especially hard if their estate makes little or no provision for a child, even if that child is an adult.  Rightly or wrongly, whether or not we inherit from our parents is tied up with our sense of how much we were loved and valued by them.  If there has been an estrangement then there can be unresolved issues of anger and blame.

Sometimes a parent may have failed to make a will and this can have unforeseen consequences.  Or a will has been made but perhaps a long time ago or at a time when the circumstances were different.

Ilott v Mitson; what is the case about?

Heather Ilott was the daughter of Melita Jackson who died at the age of 70 leaving £486,000.  Her will left the bulk of her money to 3 charities, the Blue Cross, the RSPB and the RSPCA.  Melita left nothing to Heather, because they had been estranged for many years.  Heather’s mother brought her up as a single parent but when Heather was 17 she ran away from home with her boyfriend, Nick.  They married and had 5 children, lived in a council house and relied largely on welfare benefits.

Melita and Heather were never reconciled despite 3 attempts, each of which failed and Heather was financially independent of her mother throughout her adult life.

In 2007 a District Judge ruled that it was unreasonable for Melita to make no provision for her daughter and Heather was awarded £50,000.

The charities appealed the decision and in 2009 the award of £50,000 was overturned.  Heather appealed the decision and the case went to the Court of Appeal in 2011, which ruled in her favour and awarded her £143,000 to buy a property plus £20,000 cash.

The charities appealed that decision and the final ruling has now been delivered by the Supreme Court which unanimously allowed the charities’ appeals -so Heather receives the original award of £50,000.

For an adult child, ‘reasonable financial provision’ is limited to what it would be reasonable for him or her to receive for their maintenance only. This does not mean any or everything that they want, although it is not limited to subsistence level.

Although maintenance means the provision of income rather than capital, it may be provided

by way of a lump sum.

So what does this mean for adult children?

  1. An adult child does not have the right to financial provision from a parent’s estate.

He or she is eligible to bring a claim under the Inheritance Act 1975 but that on its own does not mean that any claim will be successful.  Like every applicant, an adult child must satisfy the court that provision should be made for them from the estate.  The court decides whether or not there are grounds for making provision by considering the factors set out in Section 3 of the Act.  These are:-

  1. The financial resources and needs of the applicant.
  2. The financial resources and needs of any other applicant.
  3. The financial resources and needs of the beneficiaries.
  4. Any obligations and responsibilities of the deceased towards any applicant and any beneficiary.
  5. The size and nature of the estate of the deceased.
  6. Any physical or mental disability of any applicant or beneficiary.
  7. Any other matter, including conduct, which the court may consider relevant

In Ilott, the Supreme Court said that the District Judge was entitled to take into account the long estrangement between Melita and her daughter in reaching his conclusion. The judges were critical of the previous decision of the Court of Appeal because it gave little weight to Melita’s very clear wishes and the long period of estrangement. The Court of Appeal’s justification for this approach was that the charities had little expectation of benefit either.

But, given the importance of bequests for charities this isn’t something that adult children can rely on; they can’t say “I need it more than a charity does”. Beneficiaries, whether relatives, charities or otherwise, are not required to justify their claim.

  1. An adult child in financial need will not necessarily succeed in bringing a claim.

It is clear from other cases (Re Coventry and Espinosa v Bourke) that just because an adult child is in need, it doesn’t mean that the other Section 3 factors can be ignored.

In Ilott, the Court of Appeal criticised the original award of £50,000 on the basis that it was of little or no value to Heather – as she was on welfare benefits she would lose them once she had capital of more than £16,000. But the Supreme Court said that a substantial part of the award could legitimately be spent on replacing old and worn out household equipment which the family had previously been unable to afford. This would avoid Heather retaining capital for long above the £16,000 threshold.

When will a claim by an adult child under the Inheritance Act be successful?

It’s very difficult to answer this question because it is clear from all of the cases that they are very fact specific; every case is different  – but it seems that it’s more likely that judges will be more likely to find in favour of adult children where:-

  1. The estate is reasonably large and
  2. There is no other applicant who has any particular financial need and
  3. The applicant is in a low paid job/ is not in employment/ is in financial need, and
  4. The adult child is not responsible for any estrangement or has tried to effect a reconciliation

Where there has been an estrangement and no effort by the adult child to achieve a reconciliation the court may well find against the adult child; in the case of Garland v Morris in 2007 there was a complete estrangement for the last 15 years of the deceased’s life and the adult daughter failed in her claim under the Inheritance Act.

A case decided in October 2014, Wright v Waters similarly went badly for an adult daughter who was estranged from her mother for 9 years before her death.  Patricia Wright argued that her mother’s £150,000 estate should not pass to her wealthy brother in accordance with her late mother’s will, which excluded her entirely.  Patricia was disabled and living alone on welfare benefits.

Although Patricia had significant financial needs the judge felt that her conduct outweighed all of the other factors that were in her favour.

Summary

Just because adult children are entitled in law to bring a claim under the Inheritance Act 1975, they should not think that that their claim will be successful.

These cases involve a careful balancing act and they can be very expensive and difficult to pursue.  Detailed consideration needs to be given to the value of the estate and all of the factors set out in Section 3.

Sarah YoungSarah Young is a Partner with Ridley & Hall solicitors in Huddersfield. She specialises in contentious probate and Inheritance Act cases. She has a particular interest in cases involving missing people and supports the work being done by the charity Missing People.

Sarah represented Patricia Wright in the 2014 case Wright v Waters, a decision of huge significance to adult children who seek to challenge a parent’s will having been estranged from them.

For further information please contact Sarah Young of Ridley & Hall, Queens House, 35 Market Street, Huddersfield HD1 2HL on her direct dial 01484 558838 or her mobile 07860 165850.