The UK’s highest court has ruled in favour of three charities in a landmark inheritance dispute which could make it more difficult for disinherited children to bring legal challenges over wills if they feel they have been badly treated.
In its decision, the Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned an earlier ruling which was in favour of Heather Ilott, a woman who had been disinherited by her mother Melita Jackson in her will.
Ms Jackson left all her money to animal charities but her daughter challenged the will in the courts and Ms Ilott was eventually awarded around one-third of her late mother’s £486,000 estate by the Court of Appeal. This decision has now been overturned by the Supreme Court.
The latest ruling reinforces a long standing principle of English law in upholding the wishes of those making wills. It means in future that the courts are likely to uphold the wishes made in the wills of the deceased even if they leave little or nothing to their relatives.
Ms Ilott, who received state benefits and did not own her home, was initially awarded £50,000 by a district court judge who found that Ms Jackson had acted in a “unreasonable, capricious and harsh way towards her only child”.
This sum was later increased to £143,000 by the Court of Appeal to allow Ms Ilott to buy her home outright from a housing association. She was also granted the costs of purchase and a series of payments up to a maximum of £20,000.
The three charities then challenged the decision at the Supreme Court which on Wednesday ruled comprehensively in favour of the three charities.
Lord Hughes, the justice giving the main ruling, emphasised the importance of upholding Ms Jackson’s wishes.
He said: “It is not the case that once there is a qualified claimant and a demonstrated need for maintenance, the testator’s wishes cease to be of any weight.”
The case is being closely watched because it will help to define the rules on claims of grown-up children relating to inheritance and wills, especially where non-family members are involved.