The Supreme Court has today ruled in favour of Blue Cross, RSPB and RSPCA in the case of a legacy bequest which was challenged by the donor’s daughter. The case, which has run for 13 years, has been keenly viewed by charities because it could have had significant negative implications for future donations via people’s Wills.
The long-running case of Ilott v Mitson centred on the estate of Melita Jackson who died in 2004. She chose to donate the bulk of her estate to charity. However, her estranged daughter, Heather Ilott, challenged the Will in court.
Mrs Ilott, her only child, was initially awarded £50,000. In 2015 this was increased to £150,000 on appeal to the Court of Appeal.
This increase was challenged by the charities who argued that people should be free to choose the beneficiaries of their Will.
Today the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the charities and Mrs Ilott will receive the original, smaller sum.
No longer “windfall” income
The Court of Appeal in August 2015, in siding with Mrs Ilott, had suggested that charities should view simply as a fortunate “windfall” legacies from people with whom they had had no discernible link. Yet many legacy fundraisers know from experience that they receive bequests from people who have had no record of giving to their charity.
The three charities announced that they would take the case to the Supreme Court in March 2016.
Significance of the Supreme Court’s ruling
This was the first time that the Supreme Court had been asked to consider the provisions of the Inheritance Act 1975.
The Supreme Court’s ruling clarifies that charities are not required to justify their position as a beneficiary. The fact that an individual chooses to bequeath money to them, whether they have had a connection with the charity or not, is sufficient.
The Court also recognised that members of the deceased’s family do not automatically have any rights to precedence over gifts made to charities in a Will. Indeed, the Court further recognised that charities do rely on charitable gifts left to them in Wills.
Reactions to the judgement
Stephen Richards, head of Withers LLP‘s Contentious Trusts and charity legacy team, commented on the decision. He said:
“The Supreme Court has made the right decision today, and its judgment knocks back claims from estranged family members looking to change the terms of a will, although the door remains open. It is important for individuals that they can be confident their will is going to be respected, and is important to the good work of charities that they can assume their benefactors’ wishes will be honoured.”
“This ruling has brought clarity after years of confusion and concern for many in the charity and legal sectors.”
Chris Millward, Institute of Legacy Management
Chris Millward, Chief Executive of the Institute of Legacy Management, the membership body for legacy professionals, added:
“We are pleased by the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Ilott v Mitson which provides welcome reassurance – save in specific and limited circumstances – that donors are free to benefit whom they wish in their will and that those final wishes will be respected.
“Donors can now be more confident that having an up-to-date and professionally written will means their final wishes will be honoured, and our members can continue to fulfil these wishes and ensure every charitable legacy gift achieves its greatest potential.”
Rob Cope, Director of Remember A Charity, the consortium of charities that encourage more people to leave a gift to charity in their Will, said:
“We respect a family’s right to challenge or contest a decision, but welcome today’s ruling and the clarity that it gives charities.
“The danger with a case like this is that it pitches family against charity, when in reality this is about ensuring a person’s final wishes are met. We have a flexible Will system and that means it doesn’t have to be a case of one versus the other.”
He noted that contested Wills are becoming more common. In October 2015 the Ministry of Justice reported that there had been 178 probate disputes heard in the High Court in 2014, compared to 97 in 2013.
Cope reminded charities to be prepared for this, saying:
“It is important for charities to reduce the likelihood of a legal battle by encouraging supporters who want to leave a legacy to seek professional advice when writing a Will.”
Other challenges to legacy income
The Supreme Court’s decision comes in the same week as charities have asked the government to rethink two developments that could harm charities’ income from charitable Wills.
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