The future of Inheritance Act claims by adult children to be decided

Contentious probate lawyer, Naomi Ireson, provides a brief commentary on the leading case for adult child 1975 Act claims which has recently been heard by the Supreme Court.

The case of Ilott v Mitson was originally determined by the County Court almost a decade ago in 2007. The case was brought by Heather Ilott for 'reasonable financial provision' against the estate of her late mother, Melita Jackson under section 1(1)(c) of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975. The District Judge awarded the deceased's daughter,Heather Ilott, a sum of £50,000. Mrs Ilott, believing that the sum of money did not constitute reasonable financial provision, appealed against the court's decision.

In July 2015, the Court of Appeal allowed Mrs Ilott’s appeal, set aside the District Judge’s award and substituted it with an award of its own of:

(a) the sum of £143,000 to enable Mrs Ilott to purchase her housing association home,

(b) the reasonable costs of the purchase, and

(c) payment up to a maximum of £20,000 structured in a way which would allow Mrs Ilott to preserve her state benefits.

It is the decision of the Court of Appeal which the charities have appealed to the Supreme Court. We, at Slee Blackwell, deal with hundreds of these Inheritance Act claims each year, many of then brought by adult children (sons and daughters) like Mrs Ilott. The majority are settled before court proceedings have to be commenced as parties generally don't want to incur substantial legal costs generally associated with contested court proceedings. Very few reach trial and those that do, rarely go beyond County or High Court level. This is the first case under the Inheritance Act to be heard by the Supreme Court. It is therefore a one of a kind case and is going to have a significant impact, whatever the result, on other Inheritance Act claims pursued by adult children.

Last Monday, the case went before the Supreme Court in order for the following issues to be decided:

1. Whether the Court of Appeal was wrong to set aside the award made at first instance by the District Judges.

2. Whether, in deciding to re-exercise the court's discretion to make an award, the Court of Appeal erred in taking account of the factual position as at the date of the appeal rather than the date of the original hearing.

3. Whether the Court of Appeal erred in its approach to the "maintenance" standard under the 1975 Inheritance Act.

4. Whether the Court of Appeal was wrong to structure an award under the 1975 Inheritance Act in a way which allowed Heather Ilott to preserve her entitlement to state benefits.

5. Whether the Court of Appeal erred in its application of the balancing exercise required under the 1975 Inheritance Act.

These issues are fundamental both to Mrs Ilott's claim and to all future Inheritance Act claims made by adult children in this country.

The appeal process has not only been a lengthy one, its also been expensive. The charities involved have come in for criticism for the money they have spent fighting this case. Some critics have said that the sums involved in this estate don't justify the amount of money being spent in legal fees. People are asking whether the supporters of the charities will feel their money is being put to good use. There is also a wider policy concern. As the cost of justice rises, only the most wealthy groups in society have the financial resources to fight their way through the layers of our judicial system. And because a major part of our law in this country is based on precedent (judge made law) it is those wealthy groups alone who get to dictate where and how legal developments will occur. So in this case the charities are using money that has been gifted to them for the wider political purpose of reshaping the law in a way that leaves ordinary men and women, the people who the Inheritance Act was designed to protect, at a disadvantage.

Our contentious probate team at Slee Blackwell are eagerly awaiting the judgment and as soon as it is available, we will provide a full commentary. In the meantime our popular Inheritance Act Helpline is continuing to operate. You can call us for a free review of your claim and details of Non Win No Fee funding. Just call 0808 1391599. Or you can email Naomi Ireson direct at naomi.ireson@sleeblackwell.co.uk