When Melita Jackson died in 2004, it’s highly unlikely that she could ever have imagined that her estate would become the basis for one of the most hard-fought and lengthy legal battles for many years, resulting in a landmark judgment by the Supreme Court on 15 March 2017. Mrs Jackson refused to leave her estate – which was worth approximately £480,000 – to her only child Heather Ilott or indeed to any of her five grandchildren. Instead, she preferred to give the majority of the inheritance it to three animal charities – none of whom she had supported during her lifetime.
While this may seem unusual, in fact, it is not uncommon for parents who have fallen out with their children (Mrs Jackson disapproved of her daughter’s choice of partner/husband) to leave their estate to charity, and in England and Wales there is complete freedom for anyone making their will to give their assets to anyone they choose. Unlike other countries (e.g. France and Italy) we do not have ‘forced heirship’, where the law obliges people to leave a part of their estate to blood relatives, usually children.
Reasonable financial provision
However, we do have the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, which allows certain categories of people (including spouses, children and partners who have cohabited for two years or more) to bring a claim against an estate for ‘reasonable financial provision’. What is reasonable depends on specific factors in the act, but the court will take into account what support the parent (in this case) was making for the child in their lifetime, the needs of the child vs the financial needs of the people who have inherited and other relevant factors which would include the conduct of the parties.
Historically, inheritance claims by adult, able-bodied children have been very difficult to bring. In this case, Mrs Ilott had not worked, was supported by benefits and lived in local-authority housing. She therefore had no private pension or any savings to fall back on. A share of her mother’s estate would have been extremely helpful. However, Mrs Jackson had been estranged from her daughter since her daughter was 17 years old. They had tried to work things out over the years but this had not been possible and it was admitted at court that it was largely because of Mrs Jackson’s difficult and domineering personality.
At the first hearing, the judge awarded £50,000 to Mrs Ilott, with the remainder going to the charities. The charities appealed on the grounds it was too low and Mrs Ilott appealed on the grounds that it wasn’t enough.
Court of Appeal
At the Court of Appeal hearing, Mrs Ilott’s award was increased so that she inherited £143,000 to buy the house she lived in and also an option to receive a further £20,000 in one or more instalments, structured so that she could buy her council house and not lose her means-tested benefits.
At the final hearing, the seven judges sitting at the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the Court of Appeal ruling should be overturned and the decision of the original court should be reinstated. They cited, among other things, the importance of recognising our freedom to leave our estates to whomever, we wish as well as the social usefulness of giving large legacies to charities.
That leaves us with some uncertainty. We can conclude that adult children who are estranged from their parents may still be able to challenge the estate for a greater share. We can also conclude that the freedom to draft your will however you like is – mostly – still the case. How future cases will be decided will depend on their facts which will always be unique.
One thing is for certain though, whatever was in the estate to begin with, after over ten years of litigation and the first case of this kind to go to the Supreme Court, it’s doubtful whether there will be much of the estate left over for any of the litigants to enjoy.