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Supreme Court Gives Verdict in Will Challenge Appeal

The UK’s Supreme Court has given its long-awaited decision in the case of Ilott v The Blue Cross and others, which concerns an estranged daughter’s challenge to her mother’s will.

Background

The mother, Mrs Jackson, died in 2004. She had been estranged from her daughter, Mrs Ilott, since her daughter left home at the age of 17 to live with a man who subsequently became her husband.

In her last will of 2002, Mrs Jackson left the majority of her estate to a number of charities, and made no provision for her daughter. This was a decision Mrs Jackson had made as early as 1984, reflected in her will of that year. Mrs Ilott had been aware for many years of this decision and had lived without any expectation of benefit from the estate. 

Legal Action

After Mrs Jackson’s death, Mrs Ilott brought a claim for reasonable financial provision against her mother’s estate, and was awarded £50,000 by the District Judge.

The charitable beneficiaries under the will initially challenged the finding that there was any lack of reasonable provision, but that challenge failed. Mrs Ilott also raised her own appeal, claiming the amount she was awarded was too low.

In considering Mrs Ilott's appeal, the Court of Appeal held the District Judge had made two errors of principle in his approach. Firstly, he held the award should be limited in light of the long estrangement and lack of expectation of benefit, but did not identify what the award would have been without these factors and the reduction attributable to them. Secondly, he made his award without knowing what the effect of it would be on the benefits which Mrs Ilott and her family presently received, some of which were subject to a means test and which would not payable if Mrs Ilott had savings in excess of £16,000.

The Court of Appeal re-evaluated the claim for itself, and awarded Mrs Ilott £143,000 to buy the home she lived in, and an option to receive £20,000 in one or more instalments. The award was designed to avoid affecting Mrs Ilott’s benefits entitlement.

The charities then appealed against this award, and the Supreme Court has now unanimously allowed their appeal.

Response to the Decision

Charitable organisation Remember A Charity has welcomed this decision.

“We respect a family’s right to challenge or contest a decision, but welcome today’s ruling and the clarity that it gives charities,” explained Rob Cope, Director of Remember A Charity.

“The danger with a case like this is that it pitches family against charity, when in reality this is about ensuring a person’s final wishes are met,” he said. “We have a flexible will system and that means it doesn’t have to be a case of one versus the other. If someone chooses to leave a gift to charity in their will, they should have the freedom to do that, always remembering that this can be supplementary to any gift to family and friends.”

“But this does underline the importance of ensuring that anyone’s last wishes are set out clearly,” he added. “The fact is that contested wills are becoming more common, so it is important for charities to reduce the likelihood of a legal battle by encouraging supporters who want to leave a legacy to seek professional advice when writing a will.”

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