A woman who was excluded from her mother’s will has won her legal challenge at the Court of Appeal and received a £163,000 inheritance. The RSPCA, Blue Cross and RSPB, nominated to receive between them the entire estate, have expressed that surprise and disappointment at the judgement.
The late Mrs Melita Jackson chose to exclude her estranged daughter Heather Ilott from her Will and instead left her estate, worth just under £500,000, to the three charities. She stated in detail that none of her estate should go to her daughter from who she had been estranged for about 26 years.
She wrote a letter to accompany her Will, explaining her decision and instructing her Executors to defend any attempt by her daughter to challenge her decision.
She wrote in a letter signed and witnessed on 16 April 2002:
“My daughter has not been financially reliant upon me since she left home, although I did make gifts of money to her on her birthday and at Christmas up to and including her 21st birthday, although she refused to acknowledge any of the payments that I made to her.
“If my daughter should bring a claim against my estate I instruct my Executors to defend such a claim as I can see no reason why my daughter should benefit in any way from my estate… I have made it clear to my daughter during her lifetime that she can expect no inheritance from me when I die”.
“My Executors should use this letter as evidence in any Court proceedings as they think fit”.
Nevertheless, Mrs Ilott challenged the Will and sought provision from her mother’s estate. She was successful in 2007 in that the Court awarded her £50,000 to provider for her ‘maintenance needs’. However, Mrs Ilott appealed that decision, aiming to secure a larger sum from the estate.
Although her appeal was rejected, she was allowed in late 2014 to launch another appeal.
Mrs Ilott’s appeal was successful on 27 July 2015 and her award has been more than trebled, to £163,000.
Why the decision matters to charities
Legacies represent a substantial source of income to many charities, currently totalling nearly £2 billion a year. A legal judgement that questions whether people have the freedom to choose to whom they want and do not want to leave money to in their Will could threaten some of this income.
There is already legislation from 1975 that can and has been used to challenge charitable legacies. The 1975 Act says dependants have a right to a “reasonable financial provision”. Indeed, this latest ruling was made under section three of that Act.
The three charities affected are now considering the judgement and its implications between they decide whether or not to seek permission from the Supreme Court to appeal.
James Aspden, a Partner at Wilsons Solicitors who is representing the three charities, said:
“This is a worrying decision for anyone who values having the freedom to choose who will receive their property when they die. We have now seen four separate sets of judges reach quite different conclusions in this case, having considered exactly the same set of facts over a period of some eight years. The decision to allow this very late, further appeal against a Judgment delivered in 2007 can only encourage others to appeal and will further complicate the court’s task when deciding Inheritance Act claims.”
Sally de la Bedoyere, Chief Executive of Blue Cross said:
“Blue Cross depends on the generosity of our supporters and as such we always endeavour to fulfil their wishes. Over the past eight years we have defended the wishes left by Mrs Jackson to the very best of our abilities so are deeply saddened that the courts have decided not to honour them.”
Mike Clarke, RSPB Chief Executive, said:
“It is regrettable that occasionally courts need to become involved in interpreting the terms of a person’s Will. Not only is it damaging to the work of charities, but it may also cause concern to people who intend to leave a gift to a charity they feel passionately about. I am somewhat reassured by the comments from our lawyer, who tells me the circumstances of this sad case are very unusual.”
David Bowles, Assistant Director External Affairs of RSPCA said:
“Legacy income pays for one out of every two animals we save and without it, much of our work would not be possible. This court decision goes against a person’s desire to give their money to whomever they wish. We are immensely grateful for the kindness of people like Mrs Jackson who choose to remember the needs of animals in her will and hope this does not stop others continuing to give money to help suffering animals.”
To challenge or not to challenge
Contested Wills are not uncommon and some charities are experienced in defending the charitable expressed wishes of their supporters as set out in a legal document. Charity trustees are also obliged under law to help ensure their charity maximises its income.
However, this court decision has been viewed as a possible landmark judgement that could influence future contested wills and indeed encourage other family members to challenge the provisions of Wills. Given the decline of the nuclear family and rise of blended families, it is possible that more people will choose to challenge Wills.
In addition, the decision comes at a sensitive time, following the criticism of some charity fundraising methods by some newspapers, following the death of poppy seller Olive Cooke and the attempts to link it to direct marketing tactics, and the investigation into some alleged telephone fundraising methods. Although it is the duty of charities to argue their case when they are promised money by a supporter, the prospect of being seen to challenge family members, even if they have been explicitly disinherited, might be presented by some as further evidence of ‘mercenary’ charities.
This should be easy to counter since many charity legacy communications explicitly encourage supporters to make provision in their Will for their family first and charities second.
Remember A Charity reacts
Alex McDowell, Chair of Remember A Charity, the charity legacy consortium, expressed his concern about the potential impact of the ruling on charities.
“The right of anyone to contest a will, wherever there are grounds to do so, must be respected, but this case draws into question what has always been a legal right of the testator to practice free will in how they divide their estate. This could result in fewer people choosing to support their favourite causes through their will or increased costs for charities as a result of a growing number of claims they are duty bound to defend.”
Pointing out that many legacies come from individuals who have no identifiable link with the beneficiary charity, he added:
“For most charities, a significant number of gifts in wills come from supporters for whom there is no demonstrable link to the charity. However, this does NOT mean the individual did not have a connection or feel passionate about the cause. Issues such as patient or service user confidentiality may mean there could be deeply personal links to a charity that are unknown to the fundraising team or must not be made public. The link may also be unknown simply because it pre-dates a charity’s modern record keeping systems or institutional memory”.
He defended the freedom of the supporter to choose whom to benefit without necessarily expressing why. He added:
“The ruling may make it beneficial for professional advisors to give testators an opportunity to highlight the reason for a legacy gift but there is a risk that this could also serve as deterrent for legacy giving, especially when the legacy giving motives are deeply personal or confidential.
“It’s vital that an individual can choose to keep their motivations and personal experiences private without that right putting their testamentary freedom at risk.”
For detailed legal comment on the case and its outcome read the notes from solicitors Wilson’s – What does Ilott v Mitson mean to you? (in PDF).
Photo: last Will and Testament by ptnphoto on Shutterstock.com
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