Judge’s shock decision to reverse a mother’s will and award estranged woman £164,000

In a controversial landmark ruling, Heather Ilott, 54, has been awarded a third of her mother’s estate. Stefano Hatfield looks at the judge’s decision to ignore the deceased’s express wish

Few stories have left the High50 team and our readers so passionately divided as the news that a 54-year-old woman, Heather Ilott, has successfully challenged her estranged late mother’s £500,000 will – in which the daughter was left nothing at the express behest of the mother.

Melita Jackson had instead chosen to leave her estate to three animal welfare charities when she died in 2004. She had said that she did not wish Ilott to receive a penny in a family dispute that dated back to the daughter eloping in 1978 with her future husband, Nicholas, with whom she went on to have five children.

Attempts at reconciliation failed, with both sides blaming each other. Jackson’s last will had been written in 2002. In it, she left the bulk of her estate to the RSPB, the RSPCA and the Blue Cross, charities to which she, curiously, had relatively little connection.

The mother even went as far as to write in a letter to her lawyers: “I can see no reason why my daughter should benefit I have made it clear to my daughter […] that she can expect no inheritance from me when I die.”

Daughter’s eight-year attempt to claim estate

Ilott began an eight-year legal battle to lay claim to some of the estate in 2007, using the “right to reasonable provision” clause contained in the Inheritance Act. Although she was awarded £50,000 in 2011 she fought on for more.

She lost in the High Court in 2014, but went on to be awarded a third of the estate this week, £164,000.

Lady Justice Arden awarded her the sum to enable to help her buy her housing association home in Hertfordshire plus a little more (£20k) to help with her financial situation. One of the other judges helped to limit the award to a third, noting that Ilott could also seek employment.

The true story behind family disputes

Now, as my own family is fond of saying, “Only the two people in a relationship really know what goes on in that relationship”. So what at first sight seems to be a pretty cut-and-dried matter to a casual observer, may very well be truly complex.

Probate disputes: call in a mediator

None of us knows what form the attempted reconciliations took, nor why they failed. Nor do any of us know how bitter the original scenario was, and whether that bitterness was mutual or simply how the mother felt. The point is, none of this is of particular concern to a judge.

Just as in the case of a divorce where the actual divorce is separated out from the financial settlement and the concept of “fault” is now largely invoked (via the twin tools of adultery or unreasonable behaviour) to speed up the process, historically the person who is cutting out a beneficiary from their will does not have to explain why.

Precedent for a court to overturn your will

This is the freedom that is now being challenged by Lady Justice Arden’s ruling. Clearly, there is a degree of vindictiveness in the mother’s intent. She is punishing her daughter for her past decisions (no matter what subsequently came to pass).

That there is some obligation on the mother’s part to provide appears to have been established in the grant of the original £50,000. And that sum by itself is enough to stick in some people’s throats.

Why you should write a will

But now, there are two complications that arise from the judgement. The first is that the mother’s tenuous association with the charities involved has been held against her posthumously, and the second is that the size of the judgement appears to suggest that passed-over would-be recipients can  now claim according to their need, rather than simply argue on the grounds of reasonable provision.

Charities’ crucial decision

The charities are now placed in an invidious position: do they challenge the latest ruling or not? They clearly do not wish to appear to be greedy, but run the risk of any such bequest being challenged in the future if they do not appeal.

Now, every child or other relative that feels hard-done-by can cite this judgement, opening up the courts to a potential flood of would-be claimants. This is not least because this case is the very opposite of one of those contested will situations in which the deceased’s wishes are not entirely clear.

The mother could not have been clearer, and no one appears to be saying that she was not of sound mind when she wrote to her lawyers. Is Lady Justice Arden now legislating against our freedom to be vindictive; our ability to freely choose to put principle (however misguided) over blood ties?

Rights to our parents’ estate

You may believe she was a miserable curmudgeon, or simply take a view that it’s terribly sad to choose animal charities over your own children and grandchildren. I certainly do. But this judgement makes so many of us uneasy precisely because we recognise this and yet believe that people should have the right to choose as they see fit.

What right does a child truly have to their parents’ estate, unless it was passed down from a grandparent or other source with the intention of being passed on?

Isn’t it really all a matter of choice?

Don’t we owe our parents as much as they owe us?

These are knotty, personal issues that seem not to belong in a high court. If an adult of their own free will wishes to snub their nearest, if not dearest, in favour of an animal charity, shouldn’t that be their right? However, painful it may be for all concerned.