In August 2016 Colin Seviour (“Colin”) died leaving his estate to his wife, Maria Seviour (“Maria”). His estate was valued at approximately £268,000. Maria suffered with motor neurone disease. For both, their marriage was a second marriage and they each had two children from their previous marriages. It is understood that there were family disagreements about Colin’s financial contribution to his daughter Carly Shapton (“Carly”)’s wedding during his lifetime, and subsequently over his funeral arrangements.
It is understood that both Colin and Maria had planned to leave their estate equally to their four children on the second death as between them. However, following Colin’s death and Maria’s falling out with Colin’s children, Maria made a new will whereby Carly and her brother were excluded.
Carly brought a claim for reasonable financial provision to the sum of £75,000 from the estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependant) Act 1975 (“The Act”) as she thought that it was ‘unreasonable’ to not receive any of her father’s estate given their ‘incredibly close relationship’. Carly argued that she required the provision to buy a new home big enough for her children to have separate bedrooms and her husband an office.
Maria defended the claim against the estate by arguing that Carly already enjoys an ‘affluent’ and ‘comfortable’ life with luxurious holidays.
Historically, adult children have struggled to bring a claim under the Act as the law respects the principle of testamentary freedom and does not oblige a parent to make provision for a child as in some forced heirship regimes. This very much remains the position where adult children are fit and healthy, financially independent and capable of earning a living. However, the Act is designed to allow a court to make provision for a claimant who is in financial need or there is some other reason which would make it unconscionable for provision not to be made for them.
Not only did Judge Lloyd dismiss Carly’s claim, he ordered for Carly to pay the legal costs for the case which were £12,500. In the context of litigation of this nature these costs are low, and they can very often exceed £100,000, but Maria’s lawyer acted on a pro bono basis.
Judge Lloyd commented, ‘firstly, the estate is a small one and some 80% is tied up in Maria’s house, where she has lived for many years and wishes to remain for as long as possible’. He went on to state, ‘Maria suffers from a debilitating illness which will ultimately prove terminal. However, the prognosis for motor neurones disease is notoriously uncertain. She will need every penny to live out her remaining years in dignity and comfort’.
In relation to Carly, Judge Lloyd commented, ‘on the other hand, Carly and Jake, her husband, are relatively well off, despite their £20,000 credit card debts’. He continued, ‘she and her husband have a high combined income, which is more than adequate to meet their day to day needs’. In relation to Carly’s debt and desire for a larger house, Judge Lloyd commented, ‘I was left with the clearest picture that Carly and her husband live a comfortable life’, ‘the high figure they pay for loans, credit cards and bank charges is self-inflicted’, and, ‘yes, they feel they need a larger house, but that was never on the cards in this application’.
Judge Lloyd found that Carly, ‘was motivated by the view that she was entitled as of right to one quarter of her father’s estate’. He continued, ‘she clearly is not. The will is quite clear: Maria, having survived her husband, takes the estate outright. I understand that Maria has changed her will. This is her prerogative’.
Although the decision itself might not be all that surprising, Judge Lloyd’s blunt comments have sparked debate within the Contentious Probate circles as to whether there are too many ‘hopeless’ cases not only being intimated and settled at an early stage to avid litigation cost and risk but actually also being fought to trial incurring significant legal fees. It is clear that family politics and emotions can play a role in motivating such claims, however, it is essential to refer back to the Act and clear case law precedent. The Act is not designed to compensate disappointed beneficiaries but only those persons who have a financial need. This mirrors developing judicial comment in the recent will validity cases of Rea v Rea and Barnaby v Jones where the unsuccessful disappointed beneficiaries have been criticised for pursuing unmeritorious claims.