English Law has generally allowed a person of sound mind to leave his or her estate to whoever they choose even if that decision may seem unreasonable or perverse. The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, however, allows certain relatives of a deceased to make application to a Court to seek “reasonable financial provision” from the estate if they are able to show that the Will of the person who had died, or the laws of intestacy if no Will was made, does not adequately provide for them. The 1975 Act has been interpreted as meaning that adult children who were financially independent of the deceased and who did not suffer from any kind of disability would have no legal claim against the estate.
That interpretation is now in question. The Court of Appeal has recently considered a case arising out of the Will of Melita Jackson who died at the age of 70 having excluded her daughter Heather Ilott from her estate which was left to various charities. A letter was left by the deceased with her Will explaining that she was disinheriting her daughter because she had eloped when aged 17 and had been estranged from her mother for over 25 years. At the time of the death of Mrs Jackson, Heather was aged 50 with five children of her own, two of whom were still under 18. She had no earning capacity and no pension arrangements. She argued that the Will failed to provide her with reasonable financial provision.
The charities vigorously defended the claim arguing that the law meant that the wishes expressed in the Will should be upheld as Heather had not been financially dependent upon her mother nor did she suffer from any disability that impacted upon her ability to earn an income.
The application first came before a District Judge who made an order that Heather should receive £50,000.00 from the estate which had an overall value of £486,000. Heather appealed arguing that £50,000.00 did not represent reasonable financial provision. The charities appealed the decision to award Heather anything at all. The Court of Appeal upheld the original decision of the District Judge finding his conclusion that the deceased had failed to make adequate provision for Heather was well founded.
Critics have argued that the decision undermines the long held principle of testamentary freedom and have asked what more Melita Jackson could have done to protect her right to dispose of her own property as she pleased. Not only had the Will excluded Heather but the side letter had explained the reasoning behind the decision. The Court considered that an adult child was in no different position from any other applicant under the 1975 Act and did not need to show any moral obligation or special circumstances to be able to pursue a claim. Consideration of whether reasonable financial provision had been made for an applicant is not an exercise of discretion but a value judgment or qualitative decision for a court.
Our view of the decision is that it was based very much upon its own facts and should not be seen as an attempt by the Court of Appeal to introduce a new approach to interpretation of the 1975 Act.