The Supreme Court has today handed down its judgement in the eagerly awaited case of Ilott v Mitson  EWCA Civ 797.
Mrs. Jackson died in 2004. In her will, she left the majority of her estate valued at £486,000 to three charities. The will made no provision for Mrs. Jackson's only child, Mrs. Ilott. Mother and daughter had become estranged many years before and their attempts at reconciliation had failed.
Mrs. Ilott made an application under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 for reasonable financial provision from her late mother's estate. In 2007, DJ Million made an award in Mrs. Ilott's favour of £50,000. Mrs. Ilott appealed against the amount of this award. In July 2015, the Court of Appeal allowed Mrs. Ilott's appeal, setting aside DJ Million's award and substituting its own award of (a) £143,000, to enable Mrs Ilott to purchase her housing association home, (b) the reasonable costs of the purchase, and (c) payments up to a maximum of £20,000 structured in a way that would allow Mrs. Ilott to preserve her state benefits. The charities appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court allowed the charities’ appeal and reinstated DJ Million’s award of £50,000. It appears that at the heart of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow the appeal, is that the Court of Appeal had no proper basis for interfering with the judgment made by the District Judge and that the District Judge had been entitled to take a broad brush approach.
The Supreme Court emphasised that reasonable financial provision for adult children is limited to “maintenance”, but that concept is “broad” and “cannot extend to any or everything which it would be desirable for the claimant to have”. The Supreme Court also helpfully reaffirmed the test set out in In re Coventry that the purpose of the Inheritance Act is not to provide legacies or rewards for meritorious conduct.
The Supreme Court’s judgment makes clear that an applicant’s needs will not necessarily be the measure of an award under the Act. The Inheritance Act requires a single assessment by the trial judge of what reasonable financial provision should be made in all the circumstances of the case. It does not require the judge to fix some hypothetical standard of reasonable provision and then either add to it, or discount from it by percentage points or otherwise, for variable factors. Instead, the factors set out in section 3 of the Act, which are themselves variables and which are likely often to be in tension with another, are all to be considered so far as they are relevant, and in light of them, a single assessment of reasonable financial provision is to be made.
The Judgement has given some guidance for practitioners like myself about how the Court is likely to approach Inheritance Act claims made by adult children but the position is still not ideal. The Court still has a wide discretion and two different judges could reach very different conclusions about the same case. That makes this type of claim risky and difficult to predict its outcome at trial.
Three animal charities have won a case at the Supreme Court against a woman cut out of her mother's £500,000 will. Heather Ilott's mother Melita Jackson left most of her estate to charities but not a penny to her daughter when she died in 2004. Mrs Ilott was awarded £50,000 by a judge, which was tripled on appeal. The charities challenged the increase, saying people should be free to choose beneficiaries, and the court agreed she would receive only the original amount.