In this recently reported decision, the appellant, Heather Ilott, was successful in the Court of Appeal in more than tripling the award she received from her late mother's estate - from £50,000 to £163,000 - enabling her to buy her Housing Association property. The award was structured to ensure that she retained her State benefits, on which she relied.
Ms Ilott had brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, on the basis that she had not received reasonable financial provision from her late mother's estate. Her mother, Ms Jackson, had left the majority of her estate to The Blue Cross, Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, charities she had had no dealings with during her lifetime. Ms Jackson had written to her executors explaining that she did not want to leave anything to her daughter by her will and encouraging them to defend any action by her daughter for provision to be made.
Ms Ilott was the only daughter of Ms Jackson. At the age of 17 she had left home to live with Nicholas Ilott, whom she later married. This led to an estrangement from her mother for 26 years. The appellant and her husband have subsequently had five children and live in social housing, relying on state benefits for a large proportion of their income. Despite three attempts at reconciliation, the appellant and her mother were estranged until the deceased's death in 2012.
The trial judge considered the actions of Ms Jackson and stated that she; "...had acted in an unreasonable, capricious and harsh way towards the appellant…" but conceded that both parties were somewhat to blame for the estrangement. As a result of this and Ms Ilott's need, at first instance she was awarded £50,000, which was calculated as enough to provide her with approximately £3,000 a year and on the basis that this would enable her to retain benefits which she was reliant, however there was no evidence regarding the benefits position before the court.
The appellant then appealed this decision and the Court of Appeal substituted the increased award. The Court found that the estrangement was a factor, but not the most significant and certainly should not preclude the appellant from receiving part of her mother's estate. The mother's testamentary wishes were of limited relevance and the absence of any "special circumstances" or "moral obligation" towards the daughter, did not negate a claim. Further, it was found that charities did not have "needs" in the same way and that for the charities, any money from the estate would be a "windfall".
This is a heavy blow to charities, many of which rely heavily on legacies left by individuals. Following this judgment, a charity may find it increasingly difficult to defend 1975 Act claims by children in the absence of any demonstrable need for the estate funds. This decision could have a significant impact on the future of testamentary independence and we wait with interest to see whether the decision will be appealed.
Click here to read Mark Keenan's comments about this case in an interview with BBC Online