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The decision of the Supreme Court. unanimously overturned that of the Court of Appeal which allowed an adult child to claim against the estate of her late mother even though she excluded her from inheriting under the terms of her Will. The Court of Appeal had awarded Heather Ilott £143,000 to buy the rented home in which she lived with her husband and children as well as an extra £20,000 additional income. The judgement means that the decision of the pervious District Judge will be re-instated leaving Ilott with the original award of £50,000.
The appeal to the S.C, the highest it could go, was brought by the animal charities that were affected by the Court of Appeal’s decision ending what was almost ten years of progress through the Courts.
The significance of the Judgement lies in the importance in striking a the balance between an individuals’ right to leave their estate to whom they choose on death, against the moral obligations they have to look after needy individuals who are related to or are maintained by before death. The Act allowing such claims is the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. This is the Act which as a child of the deceased Heather Ilott used to argue that despite her lengthy estrangement from her mother she should still be entitled to provision from the then £486,000 estate to lift her off benefits and secure housing.
Today’s decision was never intended to remove or alter the group of applicants that the Act allows, an adult child will still be able to claim, but it does make it clear that the criteria that the Court must focus upon is pure maintenance. It is not the court’s function to create a beneficial entitlement where one did not exist or to enhance the level of the award beyond this. Each case will still be considered on its own facts and those applicants, children or otherwise, who are in need will be able to continue to claim.
The judgement does however raise how unsatisfactory the law in this area continues to be. The rights of testamentary freedom are well established in England and Wales unlike other countries such as France and Spain where family is provided for as a matter of course and irrespective of the deceased’s wishes. The right to leave your estate to whom you choose has enormous public support as it creates certainty and allows free will. Equally the obligations to look after family after death has strong competing moral obligations that will continue to grow as the population extends, family dynamics change and social welfare is increasing removed. The judgement does not change this.
Whilst this maybe the end of the road for Ilott v Mitson it is likely that further considerations of the issues it raises may be a matter for the Law Commission to consider.