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“Whose inheritance is it anyway?”

Many people have been scratching their heads about an Appeal Court ruling made yesterday, awarding an estranged daughter a portion of her mother's estate despite clear instructions in the mother's will to the contrary.

The case has been ongoing since 2007. The court has changed its mind on how to approach this claim on several occasions, but yesterday’s decision means that the daughter will receive a third of the mother’s £486,000 estate.

This is despite the fact that the relationship between mother and daughter was so broken that in 2002 Mrs Jackson made a will which disinherited her daughter and left her estate to three charities.

Mrs Jackson also went so far as to tell her daughter that she would get nothing and left instructions that her executors should fight any claims that might be brought.

By the time Mrs Jackson died at the age of 70 in 2004 she and her daughter had been effectively estranged for more than 25 years.

So why, despite clear instructions to the contrary, has the judge made this award? Andrew Facer, Head of Private Client at Top 100 law firm Ward Hadaway, explains: “Whilst many will worry that this case may have further eroded the individual’s freedom to leave their estate to whomever they please, the reality is that adult children have for many years been able to bring claims for maintenance, and such claims are decided on their particular facts.

“Being able to make such appeals is in fact greater now than ever before.  Spouses, ex-spouses, children and those treated as children in a relationship can all make claims.  So for instance step children can make claims on an estate.  It is up the court to decide what is reasonable, and to make awards for maintenance.”

“It is important to point out, this is not about turning paupers into princes.  However what constitutes maintenance is obviously open to debate, so I am sure we will continue to see cases like this hitting the news.

“In such a climate, it is now more important than ever to ensure that clear instructions are left regarding your estate, and to consider these regularly in relation to your changing familial circumstances.  What was reasonable when you last prepared your Will may have changed substantially since, and a regular check is essential to ensure your wishes are kept.”

Gaynor Jackson, a specialist in trust and estate disputes at Ward Hadaway, added, “Charities are potentially disadvantaged in these situations, because the Court of Appeal made clear the view that legacies to charities are seen as a windfall and also highlighted the fact that the deceased had no connection with the charities she sought to benefit.  As gifts to charities from legacies are a major source of their income, it is worth working with your chosen charities and your legal advisors to help ensure your executors can meet your wishes.”

There is an interesting added angle to this case.  The award was made up of a sum to enable the daughter to buy her housing association-owned home, as well as the ability to ‘draw down’ an additional £20,000 from the estate.

Gaynor commented, “If the judge had awarded a cash lump sum, as the previous hearing did, this would have had a detrimental impact on the daughter’s means-tested benefits.  The Appeal Court gave specific consideration as to how the award should be made without disturbing her means-tested benefits.  This raises some interesting questions with regard to the benefits system and the Judiciary’s awareness of its potential impact when reaching decisions.”

For more information on this case, click here

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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