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Animal charities lose out to estranged daughter in disinheritance appeal

by Ridley&Hall in News posted April 1, 2011.

Yesterday the Court of Appeal found in favour of a daughter who challenged her late mother’s Will which left £486,000.00 to animal charities.

Heather Ilott (50) fell out with her mother Melita Jackson after eloping at the age of 17.  Mrs Jackson died at the age of 70 in 2004.  In her Will (made in 2002) Mrs Jackson left everything to the RSPCA, RSPB and the Blue Cross Animal Welfare Charity.  She left a letter to explain that she had disinherited her only daughter because she had walked out of her home in 1978.

Heather, who has 5 children, lives largely on benefits in a Housing Association home.  She brought a claim challenging her mother’s Will under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.  The Act allows people who were dependant on the deceased to bring a claim for reasonable financial provision from their estate if they can show that they have not been sufficiently provided for by a Will or intestacy.

In 2007 Heather was awarded £50,000.00 from her mother’s estate.  She appealed that amount hoping to obtain more and the charities – who were the defendants in the case – appealed the decision to award her anything at all.  At the High Court the Judge reversed the order and Heather was left with nothing.

It has been settled law in the past that adult children who were not financially dependant on their parents and were not suffering from any disability, should not succeed in an Inheritance Act claim.  Judges are reluctant to interfere with the right of an individual to leave their estate to whoever they want and so claims by non dependant adult children have rarely been successful.

Yesterday the Court of Appeal took an entirely different approach.  Mrs Justice Black sitting with the President of the Family Division Sir Nicholas Wall and Lady Justice Arden said that it had been “unreasonable of Mrs Jackson to cut her daughter out of her Will in favour of charities to which she had no prior connection”.

The ruling means that Heather can now return to the High Court to seek a bigger pay out from her mother’s estate.  Heather’s barrister John Collins argued that Mrs Jackson’s decision to disinherit her daughter was not because she supported any of the charities “but out of spite”.

Lawyers for the animal charities argued that Heather and her husband made a number of lifestyle choices which had left them in financial difficulty and that Heather had managed to live completely independently of her mother for 26 years and should not now expect any maintenance.

Kim Hamilton, chief executive of Blue Cross, said “We rely on the generosity of our loyal supporters who leave us legacies to provide for many thousands of animals in need.  We are therefore deeply concerned about the impact of this judgement on our future income as it opens the floodgates to legal challenges from any aggrieved relative, who for whatever reason, has been left out of someone’s Will”.

The charities need to decide whether to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court – it is likely, given the potential implications of the case, that they will.

Sarah Young, contentious probate specialist with Ridley & Hall Solicitors said:-

“If the Court of Appeal decision stands it would set a precedent that an able bodied adult child can make a claim under the Inheritance Act – this could result in a flood of claims by disinherited children who would normally have been told that they had no case.  I think it is likely that charities are going to be prepared to fight to prevent this risky precedent being set.  This is an interesting case and one to watch”.

If you would like further information about inheritance disputes please contact Sarah Young at Ridley and Hall solicitors: direct dial 01484 558838 or switchboard 01484 538421, mobile 07860 165850.  Sarah Young is Managing Partner of Ridley & Hall.  She specialises in personal injury and contentious probate.  She has a record of bringing the most complex cases to a successful conclusion.

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