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

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By Katie King on

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:

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