by Tara McInnes
March 2016 saw yet another interesting turn in the widely reported Ilott v Mitson case, when the Supreme Court granted the beneficiary charities under the, now infamous, will of Melita Jackson (namely The Blue Cross, RSPB and RSPCA) permission to appeal against the 2015 decision of the Court of Appeal.
Under Mrs Jackson’s will, the charities each received a third share of her £486,000 estate. Heather Ilott (Mrs Jackson’s only child), who had been estranged from her mother for more than 20 years, brought a claim under The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (IPFDA) for reasonable financial provision. Ms Ilott was successful in her claim and was initially awarded £50,000.
On appeal, the Court, found the judge’s decision in the High Court was wrong, as he had failed to consider the effect that any award would have had on Ms Ilott’s State benefits. The Court of Appeal therefore increased the award to £164,000, which equates to approximately one third of the estate. Lady Justice Arden’s view was that whilst Ms Ilott never had an expectation of receiving anything from her late mother’s estate, neither had the charities and anything they did receive amounted to a windfall. The award was structured in such a way so as to not reduce the amount of her state benefits.
The Court of Appeal’s decision is controversial, it was considered by some as a further attack on testamentary freedom and a person’s right to leave one’s estate to whomsoever they choose. In the charity world there was concern that the court was seen to be favouring disinherited family members over charitable causes, which was clearly the impression that the judge gave in her judgment. There was also concern that the finding would open the floodgates for further IPFDA Claims from disgruntled adult beneficiaries.
The charities applied for permission to appeal and on Tuesday, The Supreme Court granted them permission. The Supreme Court will now decide whether the Court of Appeal, should have set aside the original award, whether it was mistaken in its approach to the term ‘maintenance’ under the IPFDA and whether it was correct in its structuring of the award.
It was hotly debated at the time, as to whether the charities would appeal the Court of Appeal decision. Recent online and media attention has shown the charities being criticised for continuing with the claim and using much needed funds to do so. So why have the charities appealed and are they wrong to do so? In my view, the charities were given little choice, the Court of Appeal award was contentious and some of the comments made in the judgment were very damaging to charities. There was the impression that charities didn’t need the legacy that they were left and it was merely a windfall. Following the decision, I have noticed an increase in the amount of claims being brought by disgruntled adult beneficiaries, hoping to rely on the Ilott decision. I have also noticed solicitors using the decision as support of weak and ill brought adult IPFDA claims.
Whilst the original award to Ms Ilott amounted to only 10% of the value of the estate the increased award amounts to one third of the estate, which is a huge increase. As a result of the way in which the award was structured, Ms Ilott can continue to claim state benefits and use the award to purchase her property. Whilst, the charities, lose a third of the value of their inheritance. It all seems a little unfair, especially when considering that her late mother’s wish was to leave her nothing at all. The impact the Supreme Court’s decision will have on IPFDA claims and basic testamentary rights, is huge. Therefore, I await the outcome with trepidation and hope that that the Supreme Court will make a sensible and well-reasoned decision in order to bring an end to this long overdue matter.