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English will decision worries charities

30 July 2015

Three large English charities say they are "very concerned" about the long-term implications for the charitable sector of an England and Wales Court of Appeal decision which allowed an estranged daughter to successfully contest being cut out of her mother's will.

In Ilott v Mitson [2015] EWCA Civ 797 the Court of Appeal awarded Heather Ilott £164,000 after her mother, Melita Jackson, had left her only child nothing in her will. She bequeathed her estate, which was worth almost £500,000 to three animal charities - the Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Contesting wills in England is not uncommon. The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 gives a child of the deceased the right to apply for an order if the deceased's will does not make reasonable provision for them.

"Reasonable financial provision" is defined as "such financial provision as it would be reasonable in all the circumstances of the case for the applicant to receive for his maintenance." The Court of Appeal decision focuses on deciding what is an appropriate amount for "maintenance". In doing so it significantly increased a County Court award of £50,000.

Ms Ilott, 54, was cut out of her mother's will because she never forgave her for eloping with her boyfriend when she she was aged 17. It appears that the couple are still together. Her mother died aged 70 in 2004, meaning that the resulting proceedings have now taken 11 years.

Before she died Ms Jackson wrote a letter to accompany her will. This confirmed her intention not to leave anything to her daughter. "If my daughter should bring a claim against my estate I instruct my executors defend such a claim as I can see no reason why my daughter should benefit in any way from my estate..." she said.

In a joint statement released after the Court of Appeal decision, the three charities have expressed their concern. They say charities rely on income from legacies and the outcome of the case could have serious ramifications for the future of the charity sector as a whole.

It appears that in the United Kingdom charities make £2 billion a year from legacy income, according to the Institute of Fundraising. (New Zealand's Perpetual Giving organisation estimates that in New Zealand around $122 million is bequeathed to charities each year).

The lawyer for the three charities, James Aspden, says the decision is "worrying" for anyone who values having the freedom to choose who will receive their property when they die.

"The decision to allow this very late, further appeal against a judgment delivered in 2007 can only encourage others to appeal and will further complicate the court's task when deciding Inheritance Act claims."

Last updated on the 16th September 2019