“Please sir, I want some more!”
A growing number of claimants are disputing Wills and although most of these claims can be (and are) settled through mediation some cases, in recent years, have made it to court. The introduction of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“Inheritance Act”) has enabled judges to vary Wills in favour of a certain class of claimants who have been assessed as having received inadequate provision under those Wills. The courts make their judgment based on the relationship of the claimant to the deceased and what would be deemed by them to be reasonable financial provision for the claimant’s maintenance in the circumstances laid out before them. Although this may sound tremendous for those who feel they have been denied their rightful inheritance, it is worth noting that Inheritance Act claims are more complex than one might think as no two cases are ever the same, just as there are no two families that are ever the same.
The case of Ilott v Mitson  has been, perhaps, the most prominent Inheritance Act case in recent years. Heather Ilott, who was an estranged adult daughter of the deceased and purposefully excluded from the deceased’s Will, made a claim under the Inheritance Act to receive a share of the estate. In the first instance she was granted £50,000 on the basis that her financial position was ‘extremely modest’. Mrs Ilott successfully appealed this decision with the Court of Appeal awarding her £163,000 but still pursued this further by taking her claim to the Supreme Court. To her detriment the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the decision of the Court of Appeal awarding Mrs Ilott only the original sum of £50,000. Although this was not the outcome she had been hoping for, Mrs Ilott did nonetheless successfully manage to vary her mother’s Will with her Inheritance Act claim. She was in economic hardship and the courts found that ‘reasonable financial provision for maintenance’ was not made for her in the Will.
Interestingly, in the case of Lewis v Warner  the court determined that the term ‘reasonable financial provision for maintenance’ does not only refer to ameliorating one’s financial position. In this case, Mrs Lewis, being the sole residuary beneficiary of her late mother’s estate, wanted to sell the property she inherited. The deceased lived at this property with her long-term, unmarried partner Mr Warner (the claimant) for almost 20 years. Mr Warner continued to reside there after her death and, aged 91 and in ill-health, refused to move out to enable Mrs Lewis to sell the property. The court ordered that the property be transferred to Mr Warner but, as Mr Warner was financially well off, the transfer was subject to him paying Mrs Lewis £385,000. Mrs Lewis, having obtained a higher valuation for the property, appealed this decision but the appeal was dismissed. As far as the Court of Appeal was concerned the judgment was valid, reinforcing that the term ‘reasonable financial provision for maintenance’ under the Inheritance Act constitutes all requirements of a person’s daily life be it financial or otherwise.
It does seem somewhat bizarre that the terms of a Will can be varied via an Inheritance Act claim. After all, the Will represents the last wishes of the deceased. However, what if the deceased reneged in their Will on a promise made in their lifetime – would a claim under the Inheritance Act be suitable? In the case of Habberfield v Habberfield , the deceased’s daughter spent most of her life working on her father’s farm expecting, based on a promise by her father, that she would inherit the farm on his death. By her father’s Will, however, his entire estate was left to his wife. Consequently, the daughter brought a claim against her mother under the Inheritance Act, but also in Proprietary Estoppel. The doctrine of Proprietary Estoppel maintains that if a claimant relied on a promise of land or property to their detriment and was subsequently denied this promise, the court will remedy the wrong done. The daughter’s claim was successful and the court was satisfied that she was entitled to a remedy under the Proprietary Estoppel because the promises made to her by her father were longstanding, and that she fulfilled her ‘end of the bargain over the relevant period of time’. She was awarded £1.17m in cash.
The above three cases demonstrate that the courts have a moral obligation to uphold when a claim disputing a Will is brought before them, whether under the Inheritance Act or otherwise. Evidently, the courts will not be gazing at you in astonishment exclaiming “MORE?!”. The case of Lewis v Warner illustrates that claimants cannot be stereotyped, exemplifying that each claim is judged on a case by case basis, whereas the case of Habberfield v Habberfield maintains that a legitimate expectation carried on nothing but a promise can potentially be valid in the eyes of the court. Notwithstanding that a deceased’s Will can be varied through an Inheritance Act claim, Ilott v Mitson shows that a balance still needs to be maintained between making financial awards to disadvantaged relatives and preserving the deceased’s right to leave their estate to whomever they so choose. Moreover, these cases underline the growing importance of understanding the complexity of Will writing and the need to carefully consider the potential claims that might be made against a testator’s estate when drawing up a Will.
If you are worried that your Will may be disputed after your death, or if you need advice about making a Will, our private client department would be more than happy to help. Our litigation department are also available to assist if you currently have a dispute over a Will or are defending a claim. Simply enquire with one of our offices in Haslemere, Petersfield, Liphook or Grayshott direct.