In March 2017, the Supreme Court finally handed down its judgment in Ilott v Blue Cross & Others, bringing an end to over a decade of litigation, two visits to the Court of Appeal and hundreds of hours of court time and industry speculation about the scope of testamentary freedom in the UK.
Heather Ilott’s mother, Melita Jackson, had died in 2004, leaving a Will from 2002 which disinherited her daughter entirely. Mrs Jackson left her £500,000 estate entirely to charity. In addition, she penned a number of letters explaining her decision to disinherit her only child, citing their complete estrangement of over a quarter of a century and substantial disapprobation of the life that her daughter had chosen for herself since she eloped with her husband aged just 17.
Mrs Ilott had brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 following her mother’s death, asserting that her mother’s Will did not make reasonable financial provision for her and that the Court should exercise its discretion under the 1975 Act to make provision for her now.
Mrs Ilott’s case was that, although she was (and remains) of modest means, with state benefits as her major source of income and dependant on housing benefit to provide a roof over the heads of her family, it would be reasonable for her mother’s estate to be varied by the Court such that it provided for her maintenance and improved her financial position (whether in the short or long term). Initially, the Court agreed with Mrs Ilott and awarded her £50,000 on her claim following a trial in 2007.
However, matters did not end there: Mrs Ilott considered that the award of £50,000 was too low and appealed. There were a number of appeals and referrals back to the High Court, but eventually Mrs Ilott’s appeal reached the Court of Appeal (for the second time) in 2015. Controversially, the Court of Appeal there decided that the award of £50,000 to Mrs Ilott was too low, and substituted an award of £163,000 instead. One of the principal tenets of the Court of Appeal’s reasoning was that the sum provided enough for Mrs Ilott to purchase the Council house in which she was living, and provided her with an additional sum for improvements.
The Court of Appeal’s judgment caused a furore: it was said to be a substantial attack on testamentary freedom in the UK, and represented a move towards a more EU-style forced inheritance regime. In addition, the Court of Appeal’s decision was much-criticised for appearing to be deliberately constructed so as to preserve Mrs Ilott’s state benefits at the expense of the charity beneficiaries.
The Supreme Court, in March, reversed the Court of Appeal’s order and re-instated the £50,000 that Mrs Ilott had been awarded almost a decade previously. The judgment dismisses the reasoning used by the Court of Appeal to arrive at their £163,000 figure. The Supreme Court found that the original judge (in 2007) had gone through the right “balancing” exercise, weighing up the various factors prescribed by the 1975 Act, including Mrs Ilott’s financial position, her needs, and the wishes of her mother. In particular, the Supreme Court made clear that the Court of Appeal’s approach to charity beneficiaries (that their status as charities meant that they did not have a direct financial need or expectation of benefit) was wrong – no beneficiary needs to justify why they have been left money by a testator, still less whether they need or expected the bequest.
The Supreme Court’s decision has been heralded as a welcome relief for those who saw the Court of Appeal’s findings as a challenge to testamentary freedom in this county. It is also a particular relief for charitable beneficiaries, who had seen a distinct upturn in claims by adult children against estates from which they benefitted since the Court of Appeal’s decision in 2015. The Supreme Court have codified that a scope for adult children’s claims under the 1975 Act will be more limited: a grown-up child with financial independence will need to show a need for financial maintenance from their parent(s) estate if they are to succeed in bringing a claim.