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Be careful what you wish for: statutory inheritance claims

In 2001, Patricia Wright wrote a letter to her mother, Mary Waters. In the letter, Ms Wright stated that she did not want to stay in touch, and that she wished her mother were dead. Ms Wright did not make any attempts to repair the relationship, and the pair had no contact before Ms Waters died.

Ms Waters did not leave anything to Ms Wright under her will. After Ms Waters’ death, Ms Wright applied to the Court for relief under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (the “Act”) having been left out of the will.

The Act provides a mechanism for a family member or a dependant to make a claim for "reasonable financial provision" from the deceased's estate. Where the application is made by the offspring of the deceased, this means financial provision for the person’s maintenance. The Act permits the court to take into account a range of considerations when determining whether "reasonable financial provision" was made under the will, and then to balance these various considerations. When performing this exercise, the Court is essentially applying its judgment in a discretionary way.

Ms Wright was an adult claimant with a child and grandchildren. Even though it is the case that an adult claimant does not need to prove special circumstances or breach of a specific obligation by the deceased, generally speaking, the Court does not look favourably on financially independent adult offspring claimants. However, in this particular case Ms Wright was not financially independent. There was evidence she had various medical ailments including heart disease and depression, amongst other things. Usually this is the kind of thing that works in an applicant’s favour.

In terms of exercising the discretion referred to earlier, the judge was entitled to consider Ms Wright’s conduct toward her mother. In particular, the Act required the judge hearing the case to take into account "any other matter, including the conduct of the applicant or any other person, which in the circumstances of the case the court may consider relevant." This acts as a “catch all” provision which permits the Court to consider the conduct of the applicant.

The judge put emphasis on the claimant’s conduct in writing the letter and stating that her mother was dead; a letter the Court described as extreme. In exercising its discretion the Court determined that this conduct outweighs the other considerations which worked in her favour: her ill-health, her financial circumstances and other factors.

Accordingly, Ms Wright’s statutory claim failed: the Judge concluded that it was reasonable for Ms Waters to have excluded Ms Wright from her will.

Anyone considering a statutory claim under the Act should speak with a solicitor, who can make a preliminary assessment of all relevant matters, including any aspect of the person’s conduct which might be relevant to the exercise of the Court’s discretion in deciding whether to grant relief. It should be noted that behaviour the Court construes negatively may have the effect of reducing the financial provision rather than removing it altogether.

Mr. Richard Dale
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