Michael Graham, Director, Cleaver Fulton Rankin Solicitors summarises this case.
On Wednesday 15 March 2017, the Supreme Court in the case of Ilott v Mitson ruled in favour of three animal charities – The Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). The case, which had been running for 13 years, concerned an inheritance dispute and is the first case relating to a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 to reach the UK Supreme Court. While the 1975 Act applies only to England and Wales, similar provisions apply in Northern Ireland and are set out in the Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependants) (Northern Ireland) Order 1979.
By way of background, the case related to the estate of Melita Jackson who died in 2004. Mrs Jackson had one daughter, Heather Ilott, with whom she had been estranged from for 26 years after she left the family home to live with her boyfriend. Her will left almost all of her £486,000.00 estate to the three above-named charities, but did not leave anything to her daughter. When making her will she had also sent a letter to her solicitor explaining that she was excluding her daughter and that she had made this clear to her.
Mrs Ilott challenged her mother’s will under the 1975 Act on the basis that reasonable financial provision had not been made for her. At first instance in 2007 she was awarded the sum of £50,000.00. She appealed on the basis that this amount was too low and deprived her of means tested benefits (her only income). The Court of Appeal in 2015 increased the award, to be made up £140,000.00 for the purchase of the housing associating property she resided in plus an option to require the Executors to pay her an additional sum, not exceeding £20,000.00, which could be paid in installments to avoid any impact upon her benefits.
This increase was appealed by the charities, who argued that people should be able to choose who would inherit their estate when they died and that there was no lack of reasonable provision in the original judgement. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favour of the charities and reinstated the original award of £50,000.00.
In its judgement the Supreme Court made it clear that the testator’s wishes should be taken into account, as “it is not the case that once there is a qualified claimant and a demonstrated need for maintenance, the testator’s wishes cease to be of weight.” It should also be remembered that any award under the Act will be at the expense of those the testator had intended to benefit. Family members will not necessarily take precedence over charities named in the will, regardless of whether or not the testator had any connection with those charities during their lifetime. It was also pointed out that many charities heavily depend on donations left by wills to carry out their work.
This judgment is being welcomed by charities who can now have confidence that legacies left to them in wills will be upheld. It also provides reassurance to donors that their wishes will be respected. James Aspden, the solicitor acting for the three charities, has stated that “It reaffirms in a unanimous sense from the highest court in the land that principle that we’re all free to choose who will benefit when we die.”