The UK Supreme Court has granted permission for a challenge of the decision of the England & Wales Court of Appeal in the inheritance dispute case of Ilott v Mitson.
This case made media headlines last year following a Court of Appeal decision regarding the estate of the late Melita Jackson. Ms Jackson, who died in 2004, had expressly stated in her Will that she did not wish her daughter, Heather Ilott, to receive anything from her estate upon her death.
Ms Jackson went so far as to have a letter of wishes professionally drafted and placed alongside her Will explicitly discouraging her daughter from making any claim on her estate. Among the reasons stated by Ms Mitson for disinheriting her daughter were that they had been estranged for many years after Ms Ilott had left home at 17 to live with (and later marry) a man her mother did not approve of.
Following Ms Jackson’s death, her daughter did make a claim on her estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 on the basis that she was on a very low income of state benefits and required reasonable financial provision to be made to her from her late mother’s estate. This claim was opposed by the three charity beneficiaries named in the Will.
The Court upon hearing the case initially awarded Ms Ilott £50,000 from her mother’s estate however this award was later overturned by the High Court. Ms Ilott subsequently appealed this decision to the England & Wales Court of Appeal and in July last year, she was awarded an increased share of £163,000. In the Judgment, the Court found that Mrs Jackson had acted in an ‘unreasonable, capricious and harsh way’ towards her daughter.
Lady Justice Arden said Mrs Ilott’s income was so low that it overrode the 1975 Act’s usual requirement that the applicant was dependent on the deceased. The award given was to facilitate Mrs Ilott in purchasing her housing association house and it was structured by the Court in a way that would allow Mrs Ilott to preserve her state benefits.
The charity beneficiaries have now obtained leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. In the appeal the Supreme Court will consider whether the Court of Appeal’s approach to providing Ms Ilott with maintenance was wrong and also whether the Court of Appeal was flawed in its decision to structure Ms Ilott’s award in such a way that she would keep her entitlement to state benefits.
This is an important case which raises questions about the extent to which the Courts should be permitted to interfere with testamentary freedom. It will also be interesting to see the Supreme Court’s view on structuring an award to ensure that the recipient retains access to state benefits.