Melita Jackson died in 2004 at the age of 70 leaving nearly £500,000 to the Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, cutting her estranged daughter, Heather Ilott, out of her will. Mrs Jackson and Mrs Ilott had been estranged for over a quarter of a century after Mrs Ilott moved out to live with her boyfriend in 1978 at the age of 17.
Mrs Jackson included a letter of wishes alongside her Will to explain her decision, stating that she “felt no moral or financial obligations towards her daughter” and she even instructed her executors to resist any potential claim. It is important to note that a letter of wishes is not a legally binding document and it only serves to give guidance to those administering your estate. Despite this letter of wishes, Mrs Ilott, now a mother of 5, living on state benefits, brought a claim against Mrs Jackson’s estate.
When the case first went to court back in 2007, Mrs Ilott was awarded £50,000 under Section 2 of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“the 1975 Act”) on the grounds that it was unreasonable for the will to make no provision for her. Usually, in 1975 Act claims, someone must prove that they were financially dependent on the deceased but here, the court decided that Mrs Ilott’s low income overrode this dependency requirement.
The case proved to be extremely litigious and there were five rounds of litigation in the lower courts, one of which saw Mrs Ilott awarded a further £163,000, before the case eventually went to the Supreme Court. This is the first case under the 1975 Act to reach the UK’s highest court.
The Supreme Court made their final decision on 15th March 2017. Their decision was unanimous and restored the original order handed down by DJ Million which granted Mrs Ilott £50,000. Their reasoning behind their judgement was that DJ Million had not made either of the two errors which the Court of Appeal later relied on to revisit his order.
This will prove to be a landmark case with regards to the circumstances in which adult descendants ought or ought not to be able to make a claim on estates when the descendants have been purposely excluded from the will. Although the judgement does not prevent adult children from making claims under the Act, it makes clear that the wishes of the testator will be respected.
Although Mrs Jackson’s Will and letter of wishes did not prevent the matter from going to court, it is always advisable to seek legal advice if you wish to leave someone out of your will who could potentially make a claim against your estate.