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Disputed Wills - Ilott v Mitson

What Horrors Can Happen When Family Feuds Get Out Of Hand

Knowledge is power! Making a Full Esate Plan lets you explain what you have done and why. This is the best way to avoid bitter family rivalries and disputes after you’re gone…

Disputed Wills Case Study – Ilott v Mitson – a high profile case

This landmark case was decided in the Supreme Court in March 2017 and concerned a woman who was cut out of her estranged mother’s Will and her challenge of that Will.

Ms Ilott’s mother Mrs Jackson had deliberately excluded her daughter from her Will and left the majority of her £500,000 estate equally to 3 animal charities.  Mrs Jackson had been very clear that her daughter was not to receive a penny of her estate – they had been estranged since the 1970s when she left home aged 17 to live with her boyfriend.  The mother and daughter had not reconciled in the intervening years.

Mrs Jackson died in 2004 and her daughter first challenged the Will in 2007 under the Inheritance (Provisions for Family Dependants) Act on the grounds that she had been unreasonably excluded.

The Judge ruled in Ms Ilott’s favour and she was awarded a £50,000 sum.  This was only the start of a long and protracted legal battle, however, as Ms Ilott appealed the decision for a bigger share of the estate, and was further awarded £164,000 from the estate.

The animal charities were (unsurprisingly) not happy with this decision and appealed. When the case went through all the appeals courts and reached the Supreme Court, the charities won their case with the final appeal.

This case is a good example of why you need to set out your wishes clearly in your Will and, if there is a possibility of a claim against your estate, why you should leave reasons for your decisions.

Please don’t let this kind of thing happen to you.  This scenario, and the pain that comes with it, can be avoided by putting in careful estate planning measures such as the ones recommended by our expert Estate Planning Advisers, so contact LPA Guardian to see how we can help you.

THE LEGAL BIT – AVOIDING DISPUTES OVER YOUR WILL

Unlike in many jurisdictions in Europe and elsewhere, UK Law generally gives us the freedom to dispose of our property after our death in whatever way we wish.  

The Law also provides the means for certain people who feel hard done by, forgotten or slighted to challenge provisions of a Will.

Such challenges are nothing new (Charles Dickens wrote at length about such matters in Bleak House!), but Government figures show that the number of contested Wills is rising sharply.  Such cases inevitably attract a lot of news and media coverage – they are human interest stories that often have irresistible dramatic elements of family secrets, fallings-out, grudges held, blended families, pain and rejection. 

There are generally 2 types of disputes over Wills, namely:

  1. Disputes over inheritance provisions; and
  2. Questions over the validity of the actual Will itself.

There are various factors that go some way to explaining the increase in claims against estates, including:

  • The increase in blended families – second and third marriages are more common now and this leads to more complex family dynamics.

  • The increase in property values over the last few years has produced more estates of a value that are worth fighting over.

  • An increase in information about legal rights in respect of bringing claims – people are becoming more aware of getting redress if they feel something is amiss.

  • An increase in dementia rates and longevity of life means that there is more likely to be a challenge on the grounds of diminished mental capacity or undue influence.

Reasons for Contesting a Will

The main reasons why someone would contest a Will are:

1. Lack of testamentary capacity – for a Will to be valid, the person making it must be of sound mind and understand the effects of their Will.

2. The Will was invalidly executed – the Will has to satisfy the requirements set out in section 9 of the Wills Act 1837 and should be properly signed and witnessed in accordance with strict rules

3. Undue influence – the person making the Will must not have been manipulated, coerced or intimidated in order to pressure them to make provision for someone.  Undue influence can consist of physical violence, threats, abuse of a position of trust, confinement and deception.

4. Lack of knowledge and approval – a person must know what is in their Will and approve of it and the Will should not have been drawn up in suspicious circumstances, for example if the person making the Will is blind and has left a substantial gift to the person who prepared the Will.

5. Fraudulent or forged Wills – if this is the case, the Will would be invalid, although it is often difficult and costly to prove.

6. “Death bed” Wills – these are Wills that are made days (or even hours) before death and can often include last minute changes of heart.

Claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975

Arguably, the most high profile cases come out of litigation stemming from this legislation.  A claim can be made under this Act if the Will is valid, but a disgruntled family member feels that they have not been adequately provided for – or if they have been left out altogether.  

Claims can also be made if there is no Will and the person feels that the statutory intestacy provisions do not make reasonable financial provision for them.  People who can make a challenge include the deceased’s current or former spouse or civil partner, a cohabitee, children, and any person who was being maintained by the deceased before their death.

A general feeling that the provision “isn’t fair” or it “isn’t what I expected” is not enough for a successful challenge.  Anyone who challenges a Will on this basis needs to prove to the Court that they have not been left “reasonable financial provision” as defined by the Act.  

What the Court decides is reasonable will depend on how the person claiming is related to, or knew, the deceased, and some of the factors they will look at are:

  • For spouses/civil partners – what provision might have been made on divorce.

  • The financial resources of the person claiming.

  • The obligations and responsibilities towards other beneficiaries of the Will.

  • The size and nature of the estate.

  • Any physical or mental disability of the person claiming or any other beneficiaries of the estate.

  • The conduct of the person claiming.

The Court has very wide powers of discretion when deciding on whether to grant a successful claim against an estate, but there are obviously no guarantees.

There has been a spate of challenges to Wills in recent years where the deceased have left substantial legacies to charities and disgruntled family members have asked the Court to re-assess the provisions of the Will.  These have made headlines partly because the charities involved have had deep enough pockets to go to Court and robustly defend the challenges, and because public interest has been piqued by the intrigue of family drama.

Some of the decisions do, on the face of it, seem to erode the principle that a person has the freedom to dispose of their assets as they see fit.  However, each case is decided on individual merits.

You may have sound personal reasons for excluding someone from your Will – it may be that you are estranged from your family, or that one of your children is more financially secure than others, or you may not have any close family and would prefer that good friends benefit rather than distant family that you never see, and so on.   There is nothing to stop you from setting out these wishes in a Will, as long as it is done correctly.

There is no cast iron guarantee that a Will won’t be overturned by a Court, but there are measures that you can take to ensure you have done everything possible to make your wishes clear.  We can advise you on all your options, on ways to minimise exposure and the best way to document how and why you have made your decisions so that there can be no ambiguity if your Will were to be challenged.

As with a lot of estate planning generally, it’s better to put these measures in place sooner rather than later and our expert advisers can explore the best way forward to achieve your aims.

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