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In 2004, Melita Jackson passed away at the age of 70 having made a will. However, she bequeathed all of her £486,000 estate to three animal charities, completely cutting her only daughter, Heather Ilott, out of any inheritance.

In a ground-breaking ruling, senior judges have decided to award Mrs Ilott £164,000 after decade long legal battle.

The mother and daughter fell out in 1978 when Ilott was just 17 and decided to elope with her boyfriend, Nicholas Ilott, whom she is still with.

Despite Mrs Jackson’s dying wishes being made clear in her final will in 2002, the County Court awarded her estranged daughter £50,000 in 2007, on the grounds that her mother had acted in an “unreasonable, capricious and harsh” way to her daughter.

The decision was initially upheld in the High Court, but Mrs Ilott continued to fight the decision and took the case to the Court of Appeal in 2011. It was decided here that the initial sum awarded to her was insufficient. According to Mrs Ilott’s barrister, the family are living on the breadline and are currently living in housing association.

A costly and lengthy litigation battle ensued and it was decided just this week that Mrs Ilott’s entitlement would be increased to £164,000. The judges agreed that in light of her impoverished circumstances and basic human needs, the initial sum was “not reasonable” for her maintenance and future and her exclusion from the will to be “unreasonable”. The appeal judges also agreed that Mrs Jackson had “no connection” with the charities during her lifetime.

The case was being fought against the three animal charities – the RSPCA, RSPB and Blue Cross charities – all of whom were being represented by the same solicitor. James Aspden, the representing solicitor, said they were “surprised and disappointed” by the court’s decision and that it was a “worrying decision for anyone who values having the freedom to choose who will receive their property when they die”.

Legal experts think this landmark case potentially opens the door to other legal challenges, where a disgruntled and disinherited family member decides to appeal against the testator’s final wishes.

Danielle Clements, Senior Associate solicitor in the Litigation team said this, “In the past it had been an uphill challenge for adult children to secure a significant financial settlement in relation to a disputed parent’s will, due to the fact that they would ordinarily be living independently from the parent and maintaining themselves. However, this case over recent years has changed matters in that a judge’s discretion is now so widely circumscribed that almost any outcome is possible.

“Testamentary freedom is in some regards becoming a thing of the past and through high profile cases, such as this one, more and more individuals (not just adult children) are exercising their rights to challenge wills that do not make reasonable provision for them. Certainly by increasing Mrs Ilott’s entitlement, the Court of Appeal is reinforcing the Court’s authority to reverse decisions made by individuals in relation to what happens to their own Estates and their own money when they die.”

The unique ruling has the potential to weaken people’s rights to leave money to those who they want to inherit it.

Mike Smoult, a Senior Associate solicitor on the Wills, Trusts and Probate team, said, “We always advise clients who are cutting out their immediate family to produce a side letter to their will. This should explain their decision and reasoning for what they have done and why they have provided to their beneficiaries. This will assist in providing a background and reasoning to justify the decision that has been made by the Testator.”

Mike continued, “A solicitor will always probe for the circumstances behind the decision to ensure that any claim against the estate is reduced, however, this decision certainly assists any party in trying to bring a claim should they consider the will to be unreasonable.”

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