Supreme Court backs three animal charities over struggling daughter on benefits in a row about her dead mum’s will

We spoke to a Cambridge law academic about the controversial decision

The Supreme Court has unanimously ruled in favour of three animal charities in a bitter inheritance row involving the deceased’s daughter, who is living on benefits and struggling financially.

When the testator, Mrs Jackson, died, she left none of her £486,000 estate to her adult daughter, Heather Ilott, from whom she had been estranged for 26 years. Instead, she left the money to the Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

Ilott wasn’t happy about it: her and her five kids were living on benefits and her husband’s small income as a supporting actor, so she could really have done with some of the money.

In 2007, District Judge Million of the Family Division ruled that Ilott was entitled to £50,000 for the provision of reasonable maintenance. The judge was able to do so thanks to the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, which states that a person of a classified relationship to the deceased (e.g. children) can apply for “reasonable financial provision” from the testator’s will.

However, the Court of Appeal decided this wasn’t enough and gave her £143,000 instead to buy the property she was living in. She was also given the option of a further £20,000 to supplement her state benefits.

The trio of charities appealed this decision, prompting the Supreme Court to consider the 1975 statute for the first time ever.

It’s important to note that the Supreme Court’s task in Ilott was not to decide whether the respondent, who is in her forties, should get any money at all. Instead, the legal issue was whether the Court of Appeal erred in its application of the law under the 1975 act.

And, after a decade of litigation, the Supreme Court said yes, it had.

Giving a short summary of the judgment in court today, Lord Hughes agreed that the respondent — represented pro bono by Hardwicke QC Brie Stevens-Hoare — was living on a “very restrictive income.”

However, he disagreed with the Court of Appeal that the first instance court had erred in its application of the law. The Court of Appeal, Hughes said, claimed the District Judge had made “fundamental errors of principle” for two reasons.

The first is that the District Judge said, in light of the long estrangement and Ilott’s independence, the financial provision award should be limited. However, he didn’t specify what the award would have been had these factors not played a part, so it was difficult to attribute a reduction to them. Secondly, the judge made his award without knowing what the impact on the claimant’s benefits would be.

Following a “fuller analysis” from Hughes, he said the first instance judge did not:

[M]ake either of the two errors on which the Court of Appeal relied to revisit his award. That is enough to require this court to set aside the order of the Court of Appeal.

The legal Twitterati will no doubt spend much of the day mulling over this controversial and heavily publicised judgment. Cambridge law academic Dr Brian Sloan — who recently published a book on the law of succession — is one of those, and agreed to speak to Legal Cheek about the case and its wider implications.

He told us:

Among the interesting points in the case is that the judge was apparently perfectly entitled to take into account the relationship between the mother and daughter as he did in fashioning the award. The Supreme Court emphasises the centrality of testamentary freedom in English Law, which will no doubt please more conservative commentators.

The case’s outcome, he continued:

[I]s a real victory for the charities, who don’t have to justify their entitlement on the basis of need etc because they *were* the beneficiaries under the mother’s will, and it is rightly recognised as incorrect for the Court of Appeal to say that they were not prejudiced by a higher award.

Read the Supreme Court’s full judgment here:

For all the latest news, features, events and jobs, sign up to Legal Cheek’s weekly newsletter here.

55 Comments

Withers Trainee

The daughter should not have been awarded anything let alone £50,000. The mother did not want her to inherit anything. That’s it. Who are the courts to interfere and change someone’s will. Very poor decision.

(40)(5)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

I see your point and I agree to an extent, I also generally believe that inheritance should not be expected or presumed, but did the mother expressly state in her will that she wished to exclude her daughter?

I also think that it was in pretty poor taste for the charities to appeal this, presumably it has cost them significantly more than the original award made by the Judge at first instance in pursuing this through the courts. This seems to me, on the face of it, a case that should definitely have settled some time ago.

(5)(24)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

On the matter of measure of litigation costs, it depends entirely on whom they hired. The respondent was represented pro bono, and the charities could be as well. They were probably quite rational in their decision on whether to appeal or not, in face of costs. On the matter of the position of inheritance law, the courts are not interfering with the testator’s intention. They’re applying a statute that does so interfere, which was enacted by Parliament 40 years ago.

(8)(0)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

For the charities, there was a serious point of principle that went beyond this case alone. Dealing with 75 Act claims, charities have often found that their interests are subordinated, rightly or wrongly, to the interests of applicants under the 1975 Act. These claims were frequently settled in the past for comparatively small but substantial awards, in the tens of thousands of pounds range. Ilott v Mitson the first time round was a pretty average award.

It was Mrs Ilott who appealed the first decision, not the charities. She may have wanted more, although I suspect that she failed to beat a Part 36 offer. By the time it got to the Court of Appeal the second time around, she probably would still have been faced with a huge indemnity costs order.

Then the CoA stuck their oar in, taking a very expansive view of needs, taking no view on proportionality and engaging in a bit of loss of benefits avoidance. The decision has considerably emboldened 75 Act claimants, meaning that settlements are fewer and at higher values. Big-name charities who get a substantial amount of funding from legacy income could not have left that decision unchallenged.

So that’s why it didn’t settle, in my view: Mrs Ilott was facing an indemnity costs order and the charities were facing a considerable drop in revenue and treated this case as a test case.

(18)(1)
Reply Report comment
GDL Student LOL!

Failed to leave money to a particular animal (Pettingall v Pettingall) and lacks a perpetuity period (Re Dean). Therefore the money does not go to the animals and is a resulting trust back to the settlor’s estate.

#AmIRite?

(4)(5)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

Not quite right but still a good summary. Actually both appealed the first time round – the charities said she should get nothing, Eleanor King J agreed with them so didn’t decide Mrs Ilott’s appeal and then the CA said that was wrong and sent it back for determination of Mrs Ilott’s appeal (application to appeal to the SC that time was refused). Then the judge rejected Mrs Ilott’s appeal on quantum, which the CA then overturned and the SC reinstated.

On settlement and costs – there is an outstanding Part 36 offer from before the first decision to be resolved. And it is certainly true that the charities wouldn’t have bothered had they not feared a floodgates threat (which was real, the CA decisions clearly made wills far more open to challenge and that’s where charities get most of their money)

(1)(0)
Reply Report comment
Pantman

Mrs Ilott was expressly excluded from inheriting – according to the press. The testator apparently even told her solicitors to fight any claim that Ilott might make.

Apart from that, as above, it is clearly a test case for the charities – so they are probably justified in chasing it, even if this particular case burns all the money (if you take the long term view).

(4)(0)
Reply Report comment
NCtrainee

Hoping you’re not actually a lawyer – you’re misunderstanding of how the legal system works is troubling.

The Court was interpreting a statute that allows certain family members to claim for provision from the deceased’s estate -the Court didn’t just get involved for kicks and make something up.

(4)(14)
Reply Report comment
Just Anonymous

Withers Trainee hasn’t misunderstood anything. He/she is obviously making a normative argument: that the courts ought not be able to interfere.

Furthermore, I agree. If the claimant is a grown adult who was not financially dependent on the deceased, I don’t see should necessarily be entitled to anything just because she was the deceased’s offspring.

(13)(2)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

No, s/he has misunderstood, and so has Just Anonymous. The court is not “interfering”, it is applying a statute which states that disinherited children can apply for “reasonable financial provision” from a parent’s will. It’s for Parliament to change this law, not the courts.

(2)(10)
Reply Report comment
Just Anonymous

Yeah. You’ve just shown you don’t understand the concept of a normative argument either.

No-one disputes the fact that a statute exists which allows disinherited offspring (of any age) to apply for reasonable financial provision.

Our argument is that this statutory provision should not exist in the first place – at least not for grown independent adults of full capacity, who are fully capable of managing their own lives.

(6)(0)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

Ok. But it does allow for individuals to appeal where for example the gift to them has failed for technical reasons where the intent of the deceased was for them to benefit.

(0)(0)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

Right. I have the following qualm about this, as many have pointed out, ‘normative argument’. It is the fact that the daughter was living on benefits while her mother died with some wealth – she was living off public money, not minimum wage. Her mother’s testamentary freedom is upheld at the expense of the public.

I am absolutely not saying you should have to pay for your kids’ poor life choices while you’re alive. You should also not be barred from leaving it to those individuals you actually like upon death, as opposed to those you happen to be related to but despise. However, excluding your financially struggling offspring for the sake of excluding her when evidently the closest ‘person’ you have left in life is an animal charity takes testamentary freedom too far.

It is not too much to ask that some (not all) of the money neither you nor anyone close to you needs anymore be spent on relieving the public off the duty to pay for someone you put in this world. You’re no longer on this planet. It seems fair game to somewhat limit your influence.

(0)(0)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

If you erode the premise that people can do what they like with their property on death, you have to ask what principled role there is for inheritance at all. We may as well push for redistribution of all property on death to schemes providing aid to the neediest in society. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing in my view, although the people who need inheritance the least would quickly find a way around it.

(0)(0)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

Wrong. The mother was a miserable wretch so deserves to be completely disrespective.

The law ought to protect children against abusive parents. And I can say freely that the mother was a highly abusive, no doubt personality disordered person, because she’s dead.

(2)(0)
Reply Report comment
My subjective reasonable needs include £600000 for fags please judge

Absolutely right. The 1975 Act is totally out of control (see Negus V Bahaus and Musa V Holliday for extreme examples). It seems to operate in this parallel legal universe and must be the only area of law which where the legal framework actively encourages parties to litigate. No way of working out how, in a practical sense, the principles in s3 are expected to operate. I am glad that the SC at least disavowed all of the wooly cardigans that maintain = loads of cash. Looking at some of the cohabitation cases, which are meant to be judged against the more conservative standard of maintenance, “maintenance” appears to have been taken to mean making the Claimant Fabulously wealthy. The burden is entirely on the Defense – whatever the SC says, if a beneficiary doesn’t put forward evidence of needs, they are taken to have none and basically anything goes from that point. The SC is therefore disingenuous when it says that beneficiaries do not have to justify inheritance. They do because unless they come with a begging bowl, exhibit bank statements and justify why they need the money, the Claimant (particularly spouses and cohabitants) will be given the lion’s share (at least in estates over a certain threshold). Can I take it that Musa V Holliday and Lilleyman V Lilleyman are overturned then? Of course not! It’s all a big jumble of discretion and gambling on the part of the Defendant. He’ll, it even makes a massive difference whether or not you bring the Claim in the Family Court, CC(Chancery) or Chancery Division. A study in the NLJ shows that the Family division is much more likely to disregard testamentary intentions and consider needs generously than a judge with a Chancery ticket (who is more likely to expect the Claimant to justify taking the beneficiaries inheritance away). In Negus ( a case purportedly decided on the lower maintenance standard) the court awarded the Cohabitant £600k because she “needed” it for fags, despite the fact that she already had £600 k from the deceased life insurance. Oh! But needs are objective now apparently?! So can I also presume that Negus is overturned ? nope! All this judgment does is purportedly clarify the position with properties (although still unhelpfully leaves open the possibility of a freehold interest being awarded) and complains about the state of the law. Your the SC!!! You clarify it ffs

(1)(0)
Reply Report comment
Scouser of Counsel

Interesting that a non-disabled grown adult can try to claim “reasonable provision” from the estate of a relative who has cut them out of a will.

A very middle-class thing, clearly, given that many if not most people will not inherit a penny because their parents are/were skint.

Estranged 26 years? Common sense says she shouldn’t get a bean.

(21)(2)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

“A very middle-class thing, clearly, given that many if not most people will not inherit a penny because their parents are/were skint.”

We live in the most amazingly egalitarian time for capital accumulation.

The clear implication of public policy is that if your parents leave you nothing, they’ve wasted their lives.

Roughly a billion people live in the Indian subcontinent and would love a shot at earning money to accumulate capital in the West.

(2)(1)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

Why shouldn’t she get a bean?

1. It makes more sense for laws to provide that a will is modified to provide for an adult child, if the alternative would be that the state has to provide for them. Rather the mother provides for her daughter than animal charities of all things receive money while the state has to bail out daughter.

2. Mother was a nutcase and no doubt highly abusive to estrange her daughter just because she didn’t like her husband. Don’t read much into ‘reconciliation attempts’ – often abusive people attempt to reconcile so they can bring the abused person back in for another kicking. As an adult child of an abusive parent you do well to stay well away.

3. The law ought to protect people against abusers, whether they are parents or otherwise. It is morally just for the court’s to intervene.

Basically, the law shouldn’t give you carte blanche to act the c**t.

(3)(1)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

I despise animal charities. They should be barred from charitable status. Financial breaks should only be available for causes that assist people. So much money is thrown away on the welfare of the likes of cats, dogs and donkeys when it could help to stop, for example, children’s suffering.

(12)(30)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

Animals in captivity are completely dependant for their entire lives. Children can get jobs at the age of sixteen. This woman is on state benefits despite not being disabled and I assume her children are all on state benefit without being disabled. This lady needs to get a job and encourage her children to work. Why should she be entitled to money her mother did not want to give her?

(21)(1)
Reply Report comment
Dave Barrister

Forcing reasonable provisions between generations (generally) reduces the burden on the state. Strong policy rationale if you ask me; a reasonable, legislative fettering of testementary freedom.

As to the above comment on the ‘churlishness’ of the charities appealing the decision given the claim value. This clearly turned out to be a pretty good investment in precedent!

(5)(4)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

My comment was about animal charities altogether, not about the merits of any argument in this case.

As it happens, I agree that – the 1975 Act aside – it’s difficult to see why the wishes shouldn’t be carried out as stated in the will. I just want the law to remove from animal welfare organisations the benefits of charitable status and, for good measure, to disallow legacies intended to benefit animals.

You can’t leave money to animals directly any more than you can leave it to a car or a pair of trousers. Animals are chattels, not people. So I’d change the law to prohibit this sort of nonsense carrying on by other means.

(3)(11)
Reply Report comment
Mr Contentious Probate

Spectacularly forensically illiterate article and comments thereon.

Quite interesting that it is the 1st time the HL’s visited the 75 Act. I didn’t know that and I have spent nigh on 30 years in Contentious Probate

(2)(2)
Reply Report comment
Not Amused

Why on earth did we need 7 of them sitting on this?

They are storing up constitutional problems for the future with this ridiculous policy of over staffing cases. We can’t just accept future harm to the common law in order to sate individual justices’ desire for attention.

(5)(5)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

It’s the first SC/HoL case ever to deal with the 1975 Act. There presumably was a good chance they were going to have to overrule some past decisions. Why not?

What constitutional problems are you referring to?

(11)(2)
Reply Report comment
Mr. Contentious Probate

Actually Mr Rastafari, there are some who raise interesting points.
One point raised in the judgment was that it took 12 years to reach that stage. That’s fast work. I’ve had several 30+ year old cases.
Mrs Ilot , should have taken the 50k and ran 12 years ago

(3)(0)
Reply Report comment
Mr. Contentious Probate

Good point Mr 1.15
Contentious Probate and Welfare Benefit law are two of the most complex areas of law I can think of, so a bench of seven was prudent

(2)(0)
Reply Report comment
Oxford BCL

The Act needs to be scrapped. The mother clearly intended that her daughter does not inherit any part of her estate and they were not on talking terms for many many years. As usual, SC have to poke their noses in everyones business.

(7)(4)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

Ahh by “poke their noses in” you obviously mean that the case was appealed to the SC and they duly carried out their function.

Their job is to make a decision based on the facts and law at hand which have been brought before them, not to proactively decide cases on an ad hoc basis.

(13)(3)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

Had a client who behaved horrendously towards her parents who cut client out of their Wills. This included assaults and innumerable breaches of court orders.

Client thinks Illott case opens door to a claim on their estates.

Fool.

(12)(0)
Reply Report comment
GDL Student LOL!

Failed to leave money to a particular animal (Pettingall v Pettingall) and lacks a perpetuity period (Re Dean). Therefore the money does not go to the animals and is a resulting trust back to the settlor’s estate.

#AmIRite?

(1)(3)
Reply Report comment
Anonymous

Katie, do you do any fact checking whatsoever? Brian Sloan (who is a lovely guy) is NOT a professor of law- he is a lecturer. He’s quite young in his career so absolutely no criticism of him but of the shoddy LC journalism which includes Katie’s own tweet as a source. For real?

(1)(0)
Reply Report comment

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.