Spite is back: you can cut your family out of your will

The wishes of the deceased person are more important than fairness

Heather Ilott leaves the Supreme Court, in central London where the Supreme Court justices have been asked to rule in the latest round of a lengthy legal fight which began after she late mother, Melita Jackson, left the majority of her £486,000 estate to three animal charities..

The Supreme Court has ruled that spiteful elderly people are perfectly entitled to cut their family out of their will on a whim - and their offspring have no right to a fair share of their estate. It was ruling on a court case that has dragged on for a decade, after an elderly woman decided to give a huge chunk of her estate to animal charities instead of her daughter.

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Melita Jackson died in 2004, and wrote her estranged daughter Heather Ilott (pictured) out of her will. She was an only child, so instead of leaving money to family, the bulk of her £486,000 estate went to three animal charities.

The saga

Heather's mother fell out with her when she was 17, when she left home to live with her boyfriend. Melita never had any connection to the animal charities during her lifetime, but because she didn't want Heather to have any of her money, she chose to leave the animals her estate out of spite.

Heather took the case to court in 2011, arguing that she was entitled to some support from her mother's estate, and in 2007 a district judge ruled that she was entitled to £50,000. The charities took the case to appeal, but they sided with Heather.

She then took the case to the High Court in 2014 in pursuit of a bigger payout, and lost. So she took the case to the Court of Appeal, arguing that the will had been overly harsh towards her and appealing for 'reasonable financial provision'. They agreed, and she was awarded £163,000.

Last year, the Supreme Court decided that the Court of Appeal had been wrong, and it has now reinstated the sum of £50,000.

What this means for us all

The animal charities - Blue Cross, RSPB and RSPCA will receive the £113,000 difference. They said they only fought this particular case because they were worried about the impact this would have on other cases - and the freedom it might give courts to award money to families when the deceased family member had wanted to support charities instead.

Neil Long, Head of Bond Dickinson's Inheritance Disputes team said: "Many will view this decision as the Supreme Court's attempt to put the brakes on the large increase in disinherited adults making against their parents' estates. It is a decision that will be welcomed by most people involved the Private Wealth sector, especially many charities who rely heavily on being left legacies".

"The decision does not really break new legal ground... But it does provide confirmation that the claim should be decided by weighing up all of the relevant circumstances, including the testator's express wishes, rather than deciding the case solely by reference to whether the will is perceived to be unfair or unreasonable."

Andrew Wilkinson, partner and will dispute specialist at Shakespeare Martineau, agrees: "This is a reassuring outcome for those thinking of making a will and those who already have one. Today's ruling gives further weight to the stated intentions of those people making wills and emphasises the limited circumstances in which the court will interfere with an individual's wishes – it is not the court's job to simply impose a "fair" distribution of the estate. The case also suggests that intended beneficiaries do not have to show that they are in financial need in order to be able to defend a claim".

He adds that the case also holds useful lessons for us all. He explains: "While the outcome is positive for testators and beneficiaries (whether individuals or charities), the appeal process, which has taken almost 10 years, has been unsettling and individuals preparing wills should be reminded about the importance of leaving the clearest possible instructions, particularly with regard to any charitable donations they wish to make. It is important that wishes are clearly stated in a will and that the contents are reviewed regularly. It is also important for records to be kept, ideally alongside the will, explaining what provision is being made for whom and why, and also to explain, why particular obvious beneficiaries (e.g. children) have been excluded"
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"For example, many people wish to leave part of their estate to a named charity or charities and it may be necessary to clarify that this is being done as part of genuine desire to support a particular cause, which is dear to their heart. They may, for example, be someone who regularly donates to a charity or volunteers for them – and this is information which should be recorded, and updated, where relevant."