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Estranged daughter in 'straightened circumstances' can claim on mother's estate

4 April 2011

The estranged daughter of a woman who left most of her money to charity can make a claim against the estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

Melita Jackson, who died in 2004 aged 70, left the bulk of her estate worth £486,000 to The Blue Cross, the RSPB and the RSPCA. She left nothing to her only daughter, Heather Ilott, and attached a letter to her executors explaining that the relationship had broken down.

Ilott, aged 50, has five children and lives mainly on benefits, the court heard. She was awarded £50,000 by the county court, but appealed to the High Court for a bigger award. Mrs Justice Eleanor King dismissed her claim completely but, with the aid of a pro bono barrister, Ilott challenged the ruling at the Court of Appeal.

Giving the leading judgment in Ilott v Mitson and others [2011] EWCA Civ 346, Lord Justice Wall, president of the Family Division, said the case raised “in stark form” the approach which should be adopted when an adult child claimed against a deceased parent.

Wall LJ said the first stage was a “value judgment”, whether or not the deceased’s dispositions made reasonable financial provision for the plaintiff under the Act.

He said this was “very much a matter” for the first instance tribunal.

Wall LJ said the case law made it clear that there was no requirement for the deceased to owe the child a “moral obligation”.

He added that the message of the leading case, Re Coventry (deceased) [1984] 1 Ch 461, was that “great weight must be attached to the value judgment reached by the court of first instance, and that any appellate court should think long and hard before coming to a contrary conclusion”.

He allowed the appeal and directed that the appellant’s appeal on quantum should be heard by a different High Court judge.

Lady Justice Arden said: “The totemic phrase in section 2(1) of the 1975 Act is ‘reasonable financial provision’. This phrase has a constant meaning, but its application in any individual case must take account of the circumstances of the case and current social conditions and values.”

Arden LJ said the Law Commission’s consultation paper on reform of the law in this area “suggests that the present law is not causing problems in practice”.

She said that previously there was an age limit of 21 on the age of the children who could claim under the Act.

“The removal of these restrictions makes it clear that parliament intended that an adult child should be able to bring a claim even if it was possible for him or her to subsist without making a claim on the estate.

Arden LJ went on: “The applicant has made her career in the home and she is living in straightened circumstances. The applicant and her husband have lived together and brought up their family with little income save for state benefits.”

Arden LJ said the fact that Ilott had made this choice did not make “the complete absence of provision” by the testatrix reasonable.

She allowed the appeal. Lady Justice Black agreed.

James Aspden, partner at Wilsons in Salisbury, acted for The Blue Cross, the RSPB and the RSPCA. He said the Court of Appeal’s ruling lacked “practical guidance and clarity”.

Aspden described it as “a landmark in scrapping previous guidance, but providing nothing in its place”.

He added that the charities were consulting on whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.

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Legal Aid Wills, Trusts & Probate