Ilott v Blue Cross – when can children make claims against their parents’ estates?

The Supreme Court has finally decided the case of Ilott v Blue Cross , thirteen years after the death of the testator. The decision has attracted a lot of attention as this is the first time the Supreme Court has considered legislation which allows children to challenge how assets are distributed under their parents’ wills.

Described by Lord Hughes as a case of “regretted prolongation”, the decision has attracted a lot of attention as this is the first time that the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants Act) 1975 (“the 1975 Act”) has been considered by the Supreme Court.

Mrs Jackson died in 2004 leaving an estate of just under £500,000. Her will left nothing to her only child, Mrs Ilott, instead leaving the estate to a number of charities to which she had no particular connection or link. Mrs Jackson and Mrs Ilott had not enjoyed a close relationship and had been estranged for most of Mrs Ilott’s adult life. The animosity between the two was such that Mrs Jackson recorded in a letter of wishes accompanying her will a clear intention that Mrs Ilott should not receive anything from the estate on her death. Mrs Jackson went further, insisting that the executors defend any claim by Mrs Ilott.

Given the fact-specific nature of any claim under the 1975 Act, it would be a tall order to expect a single case to provide total clarity on this area of law. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court judgment provides some useful guidance to charities.
The Supreme Court confirmed that in the case of a non-spousal claimant, the question is whether the will provided reasonable financial provision for maintenance. This maintenance requirement is to be imposed as a “limitation” on claims.

Maintenance itself is not a fixed concept and has to be considered in the context of the case. The question of whether financial provision is reasonable must be distinguished from the question of whether the deceased’s actions were reasonable.
Unreasonable behaviour on the part of the deceased does not mean that financial provision will automatically be unreasonable.

Any non-spousal claimant under the 1975 Act will have to demonstrate need. However, need alone is “not always enough”. In addition, and although not essential to the success of a claim, claimants will need to show a moral claim as this “will often be at the centre of the decision under the 1975 Act”. The Supreme Court agreed with the District Judge’s view that the relationship between the claimant and the deceased carries weight.

The estrangement between Mrs Jackson and Mrs Ilott was a factor that should be added into the balance in considering what constitutes reasonable financial provision.

Lord Hughes recognised the vital importance of testamentary bequests to charities, adding that Mrs Jackson’s wishes should not be ignored. This will come as a relief to charities. The Court also acknowledged that any award to Mrs Ilott would directly impact upon the charities by reducing their benefit.

Although the charities didn’t have a “need” in the same sense as Mrs Ilott (who was living in difficult financial circumstances and heavily reliant on benefits), this didn’t give the Court reason to ignore Mrs Jackson’s views.

It seems unlikely that this judgment will result in an increase in the number of claims from adult children. If anything, this case reinforces the high threshold that needs to be met for such claims to be successful.

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