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A recent High Court decision involving a claim for ‘reasonable financial provision’ from the estate of a deceased husband and father underlined the authority of the ruling statute in this area of law: the ‘Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 (or ‘the Act’).

This Act allows for a departure from the wishes of a ‘testator’ in certain circumstances and for suitable provision to be made from the estate if the Claimant can show that they are, firstly, eligible to claim and, secondly, that the Will (or indeed the ‘intestacy’) failed to make any adequate provision for them based upon their particular needs of circumstances.  Although this law can sometimes trouble people in that they quite understandably see the last wishes of someone to be inviolable, it very often is applied to good affect and to alleviate hardship.

The case of ‘Re Estate of Singh (deceased) [2023] All ER (D) 55’ was heard on 14 February 2023.  The decision itself was not at all surprising or indeed that significant (apart from to the parties involved) but serves as good illustration of how the Act will operate.

The circumstances of the case were that Mr Singh had sadly died in 2021 and was survived by his wife of 66 years and 6 children.  His wife, the Claimant, was 83 years at the time of his death.  His estate was worth between £1.2 – 1.99 million.

Mr Singh had made a Will in 2005 which made his 2 sons the co-Executors and only beneficiaries.  This served to disinherit both his wife, the Claimant, and his four daughters.  He had expressed the wish that his estate pass solely down the male line.

Under the terms of the Act, at section 1(1), both his wife and his daughters were eligible to claim for reasonable financial provision from his estate, although different standards apply as significantly the Claimant was still married to her husband at the time of his death.

In the Claimant’s case, it was found by the court that she had made a full and equal contribution to the marriage and it was during the marriage that all of her husband’s estate had been accrued.

She had been left with nothing.  She received state benefits of about £12,000 per year, had a number of medical conditions and was registered disabled.  She had moved out of the marital home and in with one of her daughters.

Under the Act, at Section (1)(2)(a), reasonable financial provision for a spouse is defined as;

‘…provision as it would be reasonable in all the circumstances of the case for a husband or wife to receive, whether or not that provision is required for his or her maintenance…’

This removes the need for the spouse to show that provision is for their reasonable ‘maintenance’ which applies to all other applicants.  An award to a spouse can therefore be more generous and easier to obtain.

In addition, under the Act, the Court is required to take into account the provision that the spouse might reasonably have expected to receive if, on the day on which the deceased died, the marriage had terminated in divorce (rather than death).

This is the so-called ‘divorce cross check’ and therefore an overlap is formed with awards on divorce.  The idea being that a surviving spouse should not ordinarily be worse off as a widow than as a hypothetical divorcee.  As a very general rule of thumb there is a presumption of an equal division of assets and therefore the Claimant, quite reasonably, sought an equal share of the Estate (with the other half going via the 2005 Will which stood and was not challenged).  It could be argued that this was the least she could pursue and there is authority for a greater share than half.  However, given the size of the estate it was clear that a half share would be adequate for her needs.  This was undoubtedly a factor (as is usually the case).

The Claimant was required to set out her needs and confirmed she merely wanted to purchased a modest property near her daughter and receive a modest income.  Her claim was unchallenged and the Court was able to deal with her claim in ‘an abbreviated fashion’.

She was therefore awarded 50% of the net value of the Estate (whether it was worth £1.99 million (as valued by the Claimant) or £1.2 million (as by the Defendant).

The disinherited daughters unsurprisingly did not make a claim against the estate, although they were eligible to claim.  As adult children their claims would not have been any way near as clear cut or compelling as their mother’s, and further their provision would have had to have satisfied the additional ‘reasonable for their maintenance’ standard.  Bear in mind that any claim would have potentially reduced their mother’s award too.

As already indicated, this wasn’t a ground shaking decision and merely followed the pre-existing law and firmly established principles.  There wasn’t a huge dispute over the facts and the claim was uncontested.  However, it is a good illustration of how the law regarding a ‘family provision’ claim operates.  The lay person will often baulk at someone’s final testamentary wishes being effectively rewritten after their death.  This certainly has an emotional resonance, but these wishes are a factor to be taken into account and generally the Act serves as welcome remedy.  It is sometimes worth comparing with the ‘forced heirship’ rules in some foreign jurisdictions which remove those last wishes entirely.

At Lyons Davidson we have an experienced and highly professional team who specialise in probate and inheritance disputes, including claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975.  Call us on 0300 373 7820 if you have any queries and a member of our team would be happy to discuss your circumstances with you.