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One Day All This Won’t Be Yours

Posted on the 30th April 2021 by Noel McNicholas

The rise in claims by adult children against the Estate of their parent by the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 has grown in recent years following the landmark Supreme Court decision in Ilott v Blue Cross and Others (2017). Post-Ilott claims under the 1975 Act specifically concerning adult children that reach trial are often followed carefully by the contentious probate community to assess the constant ebb and flow of how the Courts are interpreting the application of the Supreme Court’s decision. The one thing to stress at the outset is that all 1975 claims are as unique as the families they concern. Nothing is ever quite the same from one family to the next, so there’s a certain danger in relying too much upon the outcome of one claim as a basis for predicting what will happen in another. But that does not mean case law should be ignored. Following Ilott, there were a number of reported decisions that suggested the attitude of the Court was that there is still plenty of life in the adult child claim under the 1975 Act.

It is worth remembering that in assessing 1975 Act claim, the Court will take a number of factors into account (known as the “section 3 factors”) which are:

a) the financial resources and needs of the applicant;

b) the financial resources and needs of any other applicant;

c) the financial resources and needs of the beneficiaries;

d) any obligations and responsibilities of the deceased towards any applicant and any beneficiary;

e) the size and nature of the estate of the Deceased;

f) any physical or mental disability of any applicant or beneficiary;

g) any other matter, including conduct, which the court may consider relevant.

A quick recap on Ilott:

Ilott v Blue Cross and Others (2017)

In Ilott the Supreme Court addressed what responsibilities parents have towards their children once they are adults and how the needs of those children should be weighed against the interests of those whom the Deceased has chosen to benefit. The claimant, Mrs Ilott lived on benefits and was long estranged from her mother who died leaving an Estate worth approximately £486,000 to various charities (including Blue Cross) with whom she had no real history of supporting. In essence, Mrs Ilott wanted her Estate to pass to anyone but her only child. In any event and because of her poor financial status, Mrs Ilott commenced a 1975 claim that trundled at glacial speed through various lower Courts. The initial award of £50,000 to the successful Mrs Ilott was then reduced on appeal to nothing, they tripled on re-appeal only to be pegged back to £50,000 by the Supreme Court who reinstated the first judge’s award, some 11 years after the claim commenced. Two fundamental points arose from the Supreme Court’s decision:

  1. The freedom of the testator to choose who they wish to benefit from their Estate was reasserted and is an important consideration for any Court; and
  2. Adult child claimants that are financially independent of their deceased parent will have an uphill struggle unless other section 3 factors fall decisively in their favour.

Ilott nevertheless remains fundamental as it is the only 1975 Act claim to reach the Supreme Court to date and therefore its findings are keenly observed and applied to similar claims. Following Illot, case law reports of successful 1975 Act claims by adult children have become more visible. There are certainly claims that would always succeed but there are also claims commenced that are less meritorious. This has been partly be driven by the availability of no win no fee funding arrangements offered by claimant legal teams that have in turn led to more speculative claims.

But is the tide now starting to turn? There have been a number of recent decisions which suggest that being the child of the Deceased and being in a less fortunate financial position is not enough by itself to make a successful 1975 Act claim.

Wellesley v Wellesley (2019)

The claimant daughter was long estranged from her father. Upon his death, she received a legacy of £20,000 by the terms of his Will in an Estate worth over £1.3m. She made a 1975 Act claim on the basis she was reliant on state benefits and unemployed due to her mental disability. She further claimed her expenditure exceeded her income and did not have secure accommodation for her and her son who also had mental disabilities. At first glance it might look as if claim was meritorious. But a closer analysis by the judge led to a very different conclusion.

The Court found the claimant could live within her means and there was no previous case law to support the notion that the Deceased was obliged to provide the Claimant with more to reduce her reliance on benefits. She did not in fact have any financial responsibility towards her son who lived in a residential home and, from a conduct perspective, she was solely at fault for the estrangement with her father, which resulted from her “disruptive behaviour” and a lifestyle of “drink, drugs and bohemia”. The claim was dismissed.

Shapton v Seviour (2020)

This was an especially sad case in light of the defendant stepmother’s deteriorating health. The Deceased died leaving the widow defendant and two children from his first marriage. The Defendant also had two children from her previous marriage. The Deceased left his Estate to the Defendant although they had both previously made wills which provided that on the second death, their joint estates would be left equally to the 4 children. The defendant was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in 2017 and had been forced to leave work and make adaptions at her home which were necessary in light of her deteriorating illness.

The Deceased’s claimant daughter had no financial reliance upon him and her relationship with the defendant was described by the court as “toxic”. The claimant issued a 1975 Act claim but this was dismissed by the court which commented that it was “absolutely hopeless”. The Deceased’s Estate was modest and largely comprised the marital home where the defendant would remain to support her growing disability. The judge observed she would “need every penny to live out her remaining years in dignity and comfort”. In contrast, the claimant did have some debts but lived in a house worth £240,000 and had a relatively decent lifestyle reflected, among other things, by nice holidays. The claim was dismissed. The claimant in one sense had a lucky escape because the defendant was represented on a pro bono basis. If the defendant had instructed solicitors on a fee paying basis, she would undoubtedly have received a costs award against the claimant who had assets to satisfy it.

Miles v Shearer (2021)

This case received nationwide coverage, partly due to the background of the Deceased, the size of the Estate and the lifestyles of the two claimant daughters.

The Deceased was a banker who left a £2.2m Estate to his second wife, the defendant. No provision was made for his two claimant daughters (from his first marriage) who had been lavishly funded by him in their earlier adult years. The claimants’ positions were that they had been promised their father would always financially support them to the extent he known as “the chequebook” by them in years gone by. Both claimants had also each received six figure lifetime gifts from their father earlier in their adulthood to set them up for life.

The judge dismissed the claim noting the claimants were “imbued with and influenced by a sense of entitlement” and that their father had no obligations or responsibilities towards the claimants at his death. The claimants also asserted the defendant stepmother was the source of friction between the parties but that was entirely rejected by the judge.

So where does this now take us? In one sense, these cases may not shed any light on what a Court may determine in a 1975 Act claim because of the uniqueness of a family history and the position of the parties. There will always be cases where one of the section 3 factors may tip the outcome in favour of one of the parties. But recent case law would indicate that it is not enough to be in a financially poor position if that can be countered by other section 3 factors such as the claimant’s conduct (as in Wellesley), health (such as the defendant’s health in Shapton) or financial history (as in Miles).

If you require any assistance either as a claimant or a defendant in a 1975 Act claim, please contact Noel McNicholas on 01926 887700 or noel.mcnicholas@thomasflavell.co.uk.

About the Author

This article was written by Noel McNicholas. If you would like further information on the issues raised contact Noel to discuss in more detail.

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A photo of Noel McNicholas