15 March 2017
Animal charities win court ruling against estranged daughter disinherited from will
A legal battle over a six-figure sum has erred on the side of three animal charities over a daughter who was disinherited from her late mother's will.
A judgment passed on Wednesday at the Supreme Court marks the end of a lengthy legal fight over the inheritance of Melita Jackson, who left the majority of her £486,000 estate to charities and instructed her executors to defend any attempt by daughter Heather Ilott to contest it.
Supreme Court justices unanimously overturned a Court of Appeal decision that awarded more than £160,000 to Ms Ilott from Great Munden, Hertfordshire.
The court agreed to restore an initial judgment to give the mother of three - who is now in her 50s - £50,000 from her mother's estate.
Overturning that award, the justices said that the appeal court order gave "little if any weight to the quarter of a century of estrangement or to the testator's very clear wishes".
In the lead ruling, Lord Hughes said: "Unlike some other systems, English law recognises the freedom of individuals to dispose of their assets by will after death in whatever manner they wish.
"The order of the Court of Appeal should be set aside and the order of the district judge restored."
The ruling is a victory for the Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who will now share the additional £113,000.
Following the judgment, the charities issued a joint statement, saying: "The ruling confirms our right to choose who will inherit when we die.
"We are pleased that the Supreme Court has given welcome reassurance that - save in limited and specific circumstances - the wishes recorded in a person's will must be respected."
A matter of principle
The charities say their appeal was brought about "largely on principle" to avoid any future cases.
"Blue Cross, RSPCA and RSPB and the charitable sector as a whole rely on generous gifts left in wills, without which much of their valuable work could not be done," they said.
"This judgment will allow us to continue to honour the wishes of individuals who choose to remember charities in their will."
Lady Hale supported the court's conclusion in a separate ruling, saying the decision reflects an "unsatisfactory state of the present law".
The current legislation provides insufficient guidance on what factors should be considered when "deciding whether an adult child is deserving or undeserving of reasonable maintenance".
"I regret the Law Commission did not reconsider the fundamental principles underlying such claims when last they dealt with this topic in 2011," Lady Hale added.
Lord Kerr and Lord Wilson agreed with her views.
Solicitor Martin Oliver said on Mrs Ilott's behalf: "Heather is naturally very disappointed with the outcome of the Supreme Court judgment.
"Some of the judges have found that the current law is unsatisfactory and this will no doubt raise broader questions in the future."
"Whilst some may see this as a rebalancing of the law in favour of testamentary freedom, the requirements under the Inheritance Act 1975 remain the same and an adult child can still make a successful claim against an estate if reasonable financial provision is not made for them.
"The Supreme Court judgment emphasises that a testator’s wishes are an important factor but also highlights the lack of clarity in the law on what might constitute reasonable financial provision for an adult child."