A Supreme Court ruling over a widow’s decision to leave her entire estate to animal charities and not her estranged daughter has highlighted the need for professional advice when drawing up a Will.
Melita Jackson died in 2007 and left the bulk of her £486,000 estate to three charities – Blue Cross, the RSPCA and RSPB. She left nothing to her only child, daughter Heather Ilott, who had left home at 17 to live with the man she later married and with whom she has five children.
Mrs Ilott, was living on benefits with a net income of around £20,000, made a claim under the 1975 Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act for a portion of the estate. The District Judge awarded £50,000 but Mrs Ilott then appealed against the size of the award and the Appeal Court overturned the decision, awarding £163,000.
Now the Supreme Court – ruling for the first time in a case concerning the 1975 Act – has rejected the Appeal Court’s decision and decided that Mrs Ilott should receive the amount originally awarded by the District Judge, £50,000.
Lucy Atwill, a partner at Plymouth solicitors Curtis Whiteford Crocker, heads the firm’s Wills and Probate department. She says the ten-year long legal fight over the Will stresses the need to take proper legal advice.
“Mrs Ilott’s estranged mother decided to leave her money to the charities even though she had never had any lifetime connection or regular giving to them,” says Lucy. “There are lots of factors involved here. We still have testamentary freedom here in the UK and people think they can leave their estate whichever way they want. But where there has been an estrangement, the court – under the 1975 Act – will look at financial resources and needs. If this had been a home-made will, the claim would have succeeded and the charities would have lost big time.
“The solicitors had made detailed notes of Mrs Jackson’s wishes and also compiled capacity notes. It was extremely well documented. There is no guarantee that someone won’t make a claim against a will so these kinds of notes are vitally important.
“When we’re working with clients we have to think about the impact of what we’re doing. You have to play the devil’s advocate and ask all the right questions. We have to look at every single client and their background,” says Lucy.
“Perhaps they’re not leaving a large bequest to their children because they’ve given them a lot of money in their lifetime – a kind of inheritance in advance. So it’s really important to spell out exactly what you want, if not in a will then in a Letter of Wishes. That could talk about the funeral arrangements or why they’re doing something which will help the executors. A Will can’t be in too flowery a language, but a Letter of Wishes can be as long or as short as you like. You also need to check Wills regularly.”
And there’s no knowing what impact Brexit will have on the law, says Lucy. “A lot of European countries like France and Spain have a different approach. In most cases you have to leave your estate in a certain way. We have a lot of freedom to do what we want in the UK.”