StaRs: Time to prioritise, but not to panic
The case of Danielle Ames received media coverage last week following Mr Recorder Halpern QC’s comment that her lack of employment was a lifestyle choice, which alone was sufficient to defeat her claim against her father’s estate.
While high profile cases such as Ilott v Mitson have given hope to adult children left out of their parent’s wills, the Ames case should act as a warning against proceeding without first obtaining advice on the merits such of a claim.
In his judgement, Mr Recorder Halpern QC noted that the mere fact an adult applicant is a child of the deceased is unlikely to be given much weight, and in practice they are unlikely to succeed, unless it can be demonstrated that the balance comes down in their favour when considering all of the factors under section 3 of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (‘the 1975 Act’).
Mr Ames died in 2013 leaving his entire estate to his widow, Elaine. Mr Ames was previously married to Carleen, and Danielle was the only child of this relationship. Danielle lived with her mother when her parents separated, and had some contact with her father growing up. Danielle now lives with her long term partner and their two children aged 19 and 13.
Mr Ames gave a business called Ames Frames to Danielle in the mid-1990s and also provided her with the capital resources to run the business. She gave up this business in 2003 when her daughter was born. In 2005 Mr Ames paid some of the start-up costs for a new business called All Frames & Mirrors, which Danielle says was owned by her partner. Danielle claimed to have worked from home for H&L, another company owned by her father, for which she was paid a salary of £80 per week, something that Mr Ames’ widow denies.
Elaine Ames is 63, no longer works, lives in the matrimonial home with her daughter and claims to be in poor health.
Danielle brought a claim on the basis that her father had not made reasonable financial provision for her maintenance under his will.
Danielle’s claim was assessed against the criteria under S.3(1) of the 1975 Act.
a) the financial resources and needs of the applicant;
The figures presented by Danielle in relation to her finances showed a deficit of almost £2000 per month. This purported ‘financial need’ was not found to be credible based on the evidence provided. It was noted that she was fit to work and that if she was paid £80 a week by her father’s business as she claimed during his lifetime, she would only need to work 11 hours per week at the minimum wage to compensate her for this loss.
[b) not applicable]
c) the financial resources and needs of the beneficiaries;
While the evidence presented to the court showed that Mr Ames’ widow had a deficit each month, it was accepted on her evidence that she lives within her means and has a small disposable income each month.
d) any obligations and responsibilities of the deceased towards any applicant and any beneficiary; Mr Recorder Halpern QC concluded that the claims by the parties regarding the strength of the relationship between Danielle and her father were exaggerated in opposing directions, and that her relationship was neither unusually good nor unusually bad.
He was unable to conclude based on the evidence provided, whether Danielle had actually worked for H&L or not, but in any event did not find that a payment of £80 a week created any obligation or responsibility which survived Mr Ames’ death. He took particular note of Danielle’s evidence that the payment was not a gift but was earned. It was accepted that Mr Ames was generous towards his daughter over the years, but not that he funded her lifestyle in the way asserted
e) the size and nature of the estate of the deceased;
It was found that the only assets of value in Mr Ames’ estate were the matrimonial home valued at £650,000 with a mortgage of £200,000, and his share of assets worth £252,000. It was considered that this was not sufficient to support both his widow and daughter.
f) any physical or mental disability of any applicant or beneficiary;
It was noted that Danielle had no disability and was fit to work, while Mrs Ames was past working age.
g) any other matter, including conduct, which the court may consider relevant.
Emphasis was placed on the fact that a widow who claims under the Act is not limited to maintenance, while a child is and it was accepted that a wife is likely to have a higher moral claim than an adult child.
Danielle’s lack of credibility was mentioned throughout the judgement along with her failure to satisfy the court of her needs and resources. Danielle’s claim was therefore dismissed.
The legal costs of the case were estimated at £85,000 for Mrs Ames and £47,000 for Danielle. Not only did Danielle not receive anything from the estate, but she will also be liable for both legal bills and was given 14 days to make an interim payment of £34,000.
As every case is different, a detailed assessment of the merits of any claim should be carried out, paying particular attention to the criteria under S3(1) of the 1975 Act, before entering into costly litigation. Indeed, a particular risk is attached to this type of claim because it boils down to the discretion of the Judge, who may prefer one party over the other.
In this case, the result is not surprising given that the claim involved an adult child who was not being maintained by the deceased against a surviving spouse in a relatively small estate. There were no unique or special circumstances which might have prompted the court to exercise discretion in favour of Danielle and the factors set out under S3(1) of the 1975 Act were clearly not in her favour.
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