Animal charities win landmark inheritance case

Supreme court

Supreme Court judges ruled in the charities favour

15th March 2017 by Robert Armour 0 Comments

Three charities have won a long-running court battle against a daughter who challenged her mother’s £486,000 inheritance left to them.

Heather Ilott from Hertfordshire was awarded £50,000 in 2007 which was later tripled to £160,000 by the appeal court in 2015.

Now Supreme Court justices have ruled that the initial order, made by a district judge, be ‘restored’.

The charities - The Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals - saw it as a test case in order to protect the rich seam of income from wills left to the third sector which, last year amounted to £2.5bn.

The Inheritance Act case made headlines in July last year when the Court of Appeal ruled that the deceased’s daughter would be awarded £143,000 to buy a house (plus expenses) and an extra £20,000.  

Melitta Jackson (the deceased) had been estranged from her daughter for 26 years after she left home aged 17 to live with, and later marry, a man whom her mother did not approve of.

The court found that Jackson had acted in an unreasonable, capricious and harsh way towards her daughter.

Ilott gave evidence that she had not expected to receive anything from her mother when she died.  Apart from a small gift to the BBC Benevolent fund Mrs Jackson had left her entire estate (£486,000) to the three charities in her will, despite the fact that she’d had no connection with the charities during her life time.

Jackson explicitly instructed the executors of her will to fight any claim her daughter might make after her death.

But Ilott, 56, appealed under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 for "reasonable financial provision" from her mother's estate.

She said she had no pension and was living off state benefits when she first made her case to the court.  

However the charities said increasing the maintenance payout was flawed.

Supreme Court justices were told that the appeal against that increase had been brought by the animal charities "largely on principle" because of the possible impact on other cases.

This was the first time that the Supreme Court had been asked to consider the provisions of the Act.

Announcing the decision, the panel of seven Supreme Court justices said: “The order of the Court of Appeal should be set aside and the order of the district judge restored.

“This court was told that this appeal was brought by the charities largely on principle because of the possible impact of the decision below [by the Court of Appeal] on other cases, and that some arrangement has been arrived at between these parties in the event that the appeal succeeded.”

A spokesman for the charities said: "We are pleased that the Supreme Court has given welcome reassurance that - save in limited and specific circumstances – the wishes recorded in a person's will must be respected.

"Blue Cross, RSPCA and RSPB and the charitable sector as a whole, rely on generous gifts left in wills, without which much of their valuable work could not be done.

“This judgment will allow us to continue to honour the wishes of individuals who choose to remember charities in their will.”

Remember A Charity also welcomed the decision. Rob Cope, its director, said: “The danger with a case like this is that it pitches family against charity, when in reality this is about ensuring a person’s final wishes are met.

“We have a flexible will system and that means it doesn’t have to be a case of one versus the other. If someone chooses to leave a gift to charity in their will, they should have the freedom to do that, always remembering that this can be supplementary to any gift to family and friends.  

“But this does underline the importance of ensuring that anyone’s last wishes are set out clearly. The fact is that contested wills are becoming more common, so it is important for charities to reduce the likelihood of a legal battle by encouraging supporters who want to leave a legacy to seek professional advice when writing a will.”