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15th March 2017

Today's landmark decision of the Supreme Court on 1975 Act claims

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This morning the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in Ilott v The Blue Cross and others (previously know as Ilott v Mitson). This was the first time that the Supreme Court had considered a 1975 Act claim and the judgment gives useful guidance on how such claims are to be decided.
At first instance, the Claimant, the estranged adult daughter of the deceased, was awarded £50,000. At Court of Appeal level, this was increased to provide £143,000 to enable the Claimant to purchase the house she lived in and a further £20,000 in one or more instalments. The charities, who were the sole beneficiaries, appealed to the Supreme Court.

A 7-strong panel of Judges unanimously allowed the appeal, rejecting the Court of Appeal's view that the District Judge at first instance had erred in his judgment. The effect is that the first instance decision and original award to the Claimant of £50,000 is reinstated.

Lord Hughes' judgment gives important guidance on a number of aspects of the Court's jurisdiction in 1975 Act claims by those other than spouses or civil partners, namely:

  • The concept of "maintenance" is broad but it does not extend to any or every thing which it would be desirable for the Claimant to have, nor is it limited to subsistence.
  • Reasonable financial provision can include the provision of housing, but this need will usually be met through provision of a life interest, rather than a capital sum. It is not normally right to provide an appreciating capital sum as that will provide more than maintenance.
  • The Court attached great significance to the principle of testamentary freedom. In this case the testator's wishes were clear and the charities were the chosen beneficiaries. The charities did not have to justify their claim by need or expectation. It cannot be ignored that an award under the Act is at the expense of beneficiaries chosen by the testator.
  • The testator's wishes and the reasonableness of those wishes are factors to be taken into account when carrying out the section 3 assessment.
  • The Court of Appeal was wrong not to attach weight to the very long estrangement between the Claimant and her mother. This was a factor to be taken into account, though the Court should be mindful that the purpose of a 1975 Act award is not to reward good behaviour on the part of the Claimant or penalise bad behaviour on the part of the deceased.
  • Where the Claimant is an adult child of the deceased, it will not be sufficient that they have a need for maintenance, there will need to be an additional factor, such as a moral claim, for an award to be made.

As Lady Hale notes in her judgment, the case concerned "profound questions about the nature of family obligations, the relationship between family obligations and the state, and the relationship between the freedom of property owners to dispose of their property as they see fit and their duty to fulfil their family obligations". Whilst the case does not answer all of the questions, there is some very helpful guidance to be drawn by the Supreme Court's decision. 

The contentious probate team at Hewitsons is available to discuss the issues arising in this case. Please contact Lucinda Brown, Eleanor Rutherford or Kate Harris.