“I’ll cut you off without a penny …!”

Sounds dramatic, I know, but it might have been said by the mother (Mrs. Jackson) to her only child (Heather) in the case of Ilott v Mitson when Heather ran away from home almost 40 years ago.  This case hit the headlines recently – “Your will can be ignored say judges” in The Daily Telegraph.  As ever, newspaper headlines only tell part of the story.

This is a sad tale of family life – children (especially teenagers) fall out with their parents all the time but generally reconcile. In this case, we are told that Heather ran away at the age of 17, married someone the mother didn’t approve of and, even after attempts at reconciliation over the years, there was no happy ending.  Mrs. Jackson didn’t have millions – the total estate was huge amount for most people – almost £500,000 – but she decided to disinherit Heather and leave it all to charity.  She had explained her reasons for her bequests in side letters  and she even went so far as to instruct her executors to fight any claim on her estate by Heather, which, in the end, they did.

Charities who benefit in this way are in a very difficult position – they are duty bound to honour the wishes of the deceased who was kind enough to want them to benefit but also they are fighting against a very unhappy family member – and having to pay the legal costs of that fight.

What is not clear from the sensationalist headlines is that this was first decided by a District Judge in a County Court in 2007 – he agreed with Heather’s case and allowed her claim in the sum of £50,000. It went on appeal up to the Court of Appeal first in 2011 and then again this year.

It is always open to family members and those who are financially dependent to challenge a will under the Inheritance Act (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 [my emphasis] if they feel they have not been properly provided for.  Here, the notable point is that the judges felt that although the Claimant was a grown woman who had made her own lifestyle choices, she was in difficult financial circumstances. They felt her mother should have made some provision for her in the will, particularly as there was no “link” with the charities involved.  I think many parents might think this an odd outcome and quite hard on the charities themselves.

Our advice to our clients remains that they should think carefully about their choices and if they decide to leave their estate to beneficiaries who are not as expected, full details should be set out in the notes and also in a side letter.  This judgement also shows us that if you want to leave significant sums to charities, there should be some lifetime link with them – perhaps support with a regular donation.

It is open to the charities to take this case to the Supreme Court for a final decision, so we will have to wait and see on that but for now, as ever, I would say you should always get professional advice on your will.