Yesterday the Supreme Court handed down judgment in the much discussed and long-running case of Ilott v Mitson (now Ilott v The Blue Cross & others) and unanimously allowed the appeal of the residuary charity beneficiaries of the estate of the late Melita Jackson. Mrs Jackon's daughter, Heather Ilott, had brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 ("the Act") on the basis that she had not received reasonable financial provision from her late mother's estate. The Supreme Court restored the decision of the First Instance District Judge, reducing the award to Mrs Ilott to £50,000, rather than the £163,000 awarded by the Court of Appeal.
The background to the case can be found here and the case itself has continued to stimulate debate on the issue of freedom of testamentary disposition in England and Wales (unlike in other civil law jurisdictions) and about the right of a would-be testator to leave his or her estate as they saw fit – a notion that, the judgment accepted, had strong support from the public. Of particular interest in the case was the lengthy estrangement between mother and daughter which the Court found was a factor which could be taken into account and did carry weight.
The judgment confirmed that, under the Act, an adult child (unlike say a spouse) bringing a claim is restricted to a claim for 'maintenance', although this must meet the everyday expenses of living and is not limited to mere subsistence. Further, in weighing up the various factors the Court is required to consider under s3 of the Act, the charity beneficiaries did not have to justify their claim to the legacy based on 'need', unlike Mrs Ilott. Perhaps unsurprisingly the judgment confirmed that the wishes of a testator were relevant and in this case, Mrs Jackson's clear wishes were to benefit the named charities at the expense of her daughter, even though she had had no dealings with those charities in her lifetime. The judgment emphasised the fact that charities depend on testamentary bequests which is – by definition – of public benefit. This is likely to be warmly received by the charities who are regularly embroiled in such litigation.
One of the Supreme Court Justices, Lady Hale, considered the question of family obligations and criticised the lack of guidance on the factors to be taken into account when considering a claim under the act by an adult child and whether such a claim is deserving or undeserving. Nonetheless, following this judgment, claims by a would-be adult child claimant for provision under the Act will face an uphill struggle, especially where faced with the clear testamentary wishes of the testator in their Will. Establishing a need for maintenance is unlikely to be enough. Where charitable beneficiaries are also involved, this will arguably be made more difficult still. For charities however, the news is positive. By contrast to the Court of Appeal's previous assertion that any money received by a charity is a "windfall", the positive acknowledgment that a charity need not justify a competing claim to a would-be claimant based on need will undoubtedly be welcome news.