There has been a lot in the press recently about the case of Ilott v Mitson, where an estranged daughter was awarded part of her mother’s estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, even though the mother had left a letter of wishes explaining why she had left her money to animal charities instead.  It has long been the law that “an Englishman still remains at liberty at his death to dispose of his own property in whatever way he pleases” (Judge Oliver in the 1980 case of Re Coventry).

As is often the case, headlines are misleading.The will was that of Mrs Ilott’s late mother, Mrs Melita Jackson. She died in June 2004, leaving net estate of £486,000. Her will in which (subject to a legacy of £5,000 in favour of the BBC Benevolent Fund) she left her entire estate to be divided between The Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, even though she had never had any contact with these charities in her lifetime. Mrs Ilott was her only child. She and her mother had been estranged for some 26 years and Mrs Ilott knew that Mrs Jackson intended not to leave her any of her estate in her will.

Mrs Ilott’s father, Mr Jackson, was killed in an accident at work about three months before Mrs. Ilott was born. In November 1978, aged 17, Mrs Ilott left home without her mother’s knowledge or agreement to live with Nicholas Ilott, whom she later married on 30 April 1983. This caused an estrangement between mother and daughter that lasted 26 years. Throughout her marriage she lived with her husband at 16 Edward Cottages, Great Munden, Ware, Hertfordshire; they have five children, and they rented their home from a housing association but Mr and Mrs Ilott had the right to buy it at a discounted price of £143,000.

There were three attempts at reconciliation, all of which failed. On the last occasion, it failed because Mrs Jackson took offence that the fifth child had been given the name of Mrs Ilott’s paternal grandmother, who Mrs Jackson did not like.

What does the law say?

Under the 1975 Act, when determining whether the will makes reasonable financial provision for the claimant, the court must have regard to the factors set out in section 3. This section states that:

3 (1) Where an application is made for an order under section 2 of this Act, the court shall, in determining whether the disposition of the deceased’s estate effected by his will or the law relating to intestacy, or the combination of his will and that law, is such as to make reasonable financial provision for the applicant and, if the court considers that reasonable financial provision has not been made, in determining whether and in what manner it shall exercise its powers under that section, have regard to the following matters, that is to say;

3 (1)(a)  the financial resources and financial needs which the applicant has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future;
3 (1)(b) the financial resources and financial needs which any other applicant for an order under section 2 of this Act has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future;
(3 (1)(c) the financial resources and financial needs which any beneficiary of the estate of the deceased has or is likely to have in the foreseeable future;
(3 (1)(d) any obligations and responsibilities which the deceased had towards any applicant for an order under the said section 2 or towards any beneficiary of the estate of the deceased;
(3 (1)(e) the size and nature of the net estate of the deceased;
(3 (1)(f) any physical or mental disability of any applicant for an order under the said section 2 or any beneficiary of the estate of the deceased;
(3 (1)(g) any other matter, including the conduct of the applicant or any other person, which in the circumstances of the case the court may consider relevant…”

The first challenge to the will was as long ago as 2007. Originally, the District Judge hearing the case (District Judge Million) decided that Mrs Jackson had acted in an unreasonable, capricious and harsh way towards Mrs. Ilott, but that both sides were responsible for the failure of these attempts. Nevertheless, in view of Mrs. Ilott’s situation he found that the will did not make reasonable provision for her and hence she was entitled to something from the estate; he awarded her £50,000.  She appealed on the ground that it wasn’t enough.  But for the reasons set out in the judgment of Judge Parker, she was unsuccessful. The charities then brought a further appeal on the ground  that the daughter failed to qualify under the 1975 Act to make a claim at all. But in the judgment of the Court of Appeal, she was.

Lady Justice Arden said “I consider that reasonable financial provision can only be made for this appellant by providing her with the sum that she requires to buy her home. At the date of the hearing before the judge, the acquisition price was £186,000 but this has since been reduced to £143,000. I would order this sum and the amount of the reasonable costs of acquisition. I would additionally award her an option to take a further maximum capital sum of £20,000 to provide an immediate capital sum from which further income needs can be met.”

So, more than 10 years after her death, Mrs. Jackson’s will was laid to rest by the Court giving her only daughter enough money to buy her own home and just a little more besides (although the costs of the various appeals must have been enormous). Mrs. Jackson’s wishes were, it seems, defeated by her own unkindness towards her needy daughter. Cases like this are, of course, very fact-specific so another Court may well not follow Ilott (and the charities involved may choose to appeal), but this is a good example of what can happen when wills and their consequences are not thought through.

Ilott v Mitson-the story behind the headlines