Disputed Will cases – Inheritance and Family Provisions Act 1975 claims

25 April 2014

‘1975 Act claims’ are claims made under the Inheritance and Family Provisions Act 1975, where relatives and dependants who feel they have not received enough (or anything at all) on someone’s death can ask the Court to make provision for them. Below are some recent cases.

Should you have any questions about bringing or defending a 1975 Act claim, please see our Frequently Asked Questions or contact a member of our team.

Widow seeks answers from Court about her husband’s tangled Estate 

A ‘1975 Act claim’ is a claim made under the Inheritance and Family Provisions Act 1975 where relatives and dependants who feel they have not received enough (or anything at all) on someone’s death can ask the Court to make provision for them.

In Stella Burnard v Graham Burnard and others (2014] EWHC 340 (Ch)), the Court was asked to tidy up three preliminary matters in a messy estate before it was able to consider a 1975 Act claim by the deceased’s second wife.

The deceased, G, had owned a number of investment properties both in his own right and under a company called Grangeway.  In his Will, he left his interest in ‘Grangeway Properties’ to his three adult sons from his first marriage and his residuary estate to his second wife, S.

However, before the Court could even begin to think about whether S should inherit more under her husband’s Will, it first needed to work out how much she was actually going to get.  This involved untangling some problems with the Estate itself.

The first issue was whether the reference to ‘Grangeway Properties’, a company in which G had no interest, was a mistake.  It was argued that it should have referred to ‘Grangeway’ – a company which he had controlled.  The Court agreed that it was ambiguous and therefore was allowed to consider outside evidence.  It was clear that G had meant to leave his business interests to his sons and so it was held that the Will should be interpreted as referring to ‘Grangeway’.

The second issue was whether a declaration of trust over three properties entered into by the deceased was a sham.  S argued that it was.  The Court held that there was no evidence of lack of capacity or undue influence.  Further, the transaction was not one which required explanation – it was a dying business-owner gifting his office to his son who was taking over.

The third and final issue was whether S was a shareholder in Grangeway.  It was clear that G had transferred 4,000 shares to her in 1993.  However, the company accounts showed that these were transferred back in 1998.  S denied the shares had been transferred back and there was no stock transfer form.  The Court noted that the company’s record-keeping was poor and unreliable.  Under these circumstances S’s evidence was accepted.

Following the clarifications regarding the estate, the next step will be for S to decide whether to pursue her 1975 Act claim.

Death-bed Will was probably a forgery

The case of Watts v Watts ([2014] EWHC 668 (Ch)) involved a Machiavellian-sounding plot to forge a death-bed Will.

Valerie Watts made a Will in 1999 under which her two adopted children, Christine and Gary, inherited equally.

In 2011, a second Will was made while Valerie was in hospital with terminal cancer and the sole beneficiary was Gary.  Christine challenged the validity of the Will and also made a 1975 Act claim that, if the Will was held to be valid, it did not make adequate financial provision for her.

This Will was drawn up by her sister Yvonne using a WHSmith Will pack.  Upon reading the instructions, Yvonne and Gary realised that Gary could not act as witness.  They therefore drafted in a nurse, Jackie Brown, who was a witness along with Yvonne.

But all was not as it seemed… It turned out that Nurse Jackie did not know she was witnessing a Will for Valerie, she thought she was witnessing Gary’s signature as next of kin.  In fact, she didn’t see Valerie sign at all.

And there was more… Valerie’s signature was very similar to that on her driving licence.  However, earlier that day she had signed a Do Not Resuscitate form – her last known authentic signature.  This was very shaky and, according to a handwriting expert, did not match the signature on the Will.

The judge held that the Will was not validly signed and pronounced in favour of the 1999 Will.

She went on to say that had the 2011 Will been valid, Christine’s 1975 Act claim would have succeeded and she would have been entitled to half.  Gary and Yvonne had been very scathing of Christine’s failure to visit her mum in hospital.  However, the judge found there were valid reasons for this.  Valerie and Christine had had a difficult relationship due to the fact that Valerie had had difficulties accepting that Christine was gay.  She had also been upset that Christine had reconnected with her father against her wishes.  Further, Christine had health problems which had made it very difficult for her to visit her mum. 

The judge also compared Gary and Christine’s financial circumstances which were both, frankly, pretty dire.  On balance, Christine’s need was slightly greater.

Rare case of adult child making successful claim against mother’s Estate

The law allows children to challenge their parents’ Wills if they have not been properly provided for.  This applies to children of all ages although, traditionally, it has been very difficult for an adult child to make a successful claim.

The High Court case of Heather Ilot ([2014] EWHC 542 (Fam)), unusually, involves a successful claim by an adult child who, even more unusually, was estranged from her mother.

The deceased, Melita Jackson, left her £486,000 Estate to various charities and nothing to her daughter Heather Ilot, from whom she had been estranged since she left home at 17 to marry a man of whom her mother disapproved.

Ms Ilot made a successful claim at first instance that her mother had not made reasonable provision for her under her Will and she was awarded a lump sum of £50,000.

Both parties appealed.  The charities contended that she had received too much while Ms Ilot said she had not received enough.  In fact, an award of this size would not benefit her at all as she would lose her entitlement to state benefits, on which she was living.  She argued that the only way she could benefit was if she was awarded enough to buy her council house under the right-to-buy scheme.  The charities said she should only be awarded a couple of thousand pounds – enough to get driving lessons and get a job, apparently.

The High Court upheld the first instance decision.  The actual right to provision for Ms Ilot, even though she had no relationship with her mother, was appropriate because if she received no provision, this would be an ‘unreasonable result’.  This was on the basis that:

  • Ms Jackson had behaved unreasonably in remaining estranged from her daughter; and
  • Ms Ilot and her family had extremely limited means and little prospect of improving their lot in life.

However, the fact that Ms Ilot had lived independently from her mother for so long and the fact that she had had no expectation of receiving anything under her mother’s Will meant that any provision must necessarily be limited.  This was a relevant consideration under the Act.

The High Court therefore had no grounds for overturning the first instance decision.  However, reading between the lines it seems that a big problem for the claimant was that she (or her legal team) had never actually presented the Court with evidence of how much money she actually needed.  At one point, she submitted a schedule requesting more than the whole value of the Estate.  The judge at first instance appeared to have no choice but to almost pluck a figure out of the air and, given he had made no error at law, this figure was not appealable.

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