“Absolutely hopeless” claim against ailing stepmother’s inheritance rejected

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A claim brought by the daughter of a deceased man for reasonable financial provision under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 has been dismissed as “absolutely hopeless” by the Court. The claimant argued that she was entitled to 25% of the estate but the Court ruled that the Will was unambiguous in leaving the estate entirely to the deceased’s wife (the applicant’s stepmother).

The defendant (M) had married the deceased in 1999, both of whom had two children from their respective first marriages. The deceased died in 2016, leaving his estate of £268,000 entirely to M in his final Will. His estate comprised of insurance policies and a house which was owned by M and the deceased as tenants in common in equal shares.

At the time of her husband’s death, M was working part-time with no pension due until 2030. The following year, she was diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) and with financial assistance from the local authority she had made adaptations to the house to enable her to remain living there. By this time, she was wheelchair-bound and needed assistance with daily living, and her condition was expected to deteriorate over time. Her total income, including benefits, was £1,378 per month. She had £14,512 in savings and a prudential bond with a cash value of £42,540 plus a non-guaranteed final bonus of £19,728.

The claimant (C), aged 32, lived with her husband and two young children. She was on maternity leave at the time of her claim and in receipt of child benefit. Her husband earned £37,500 plus bonus. C felt that they needed a larger house and estimated that she would need to spend £350,000.

In making its decision, the Court referred to s.3 of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 which addresses:

  • the applicant’s and beneficiary’s current and likely financial needs and resources in the foreseeable future
  • any obligations and responsibilities which the deceased had towards any applicant or beneficiary
  • the size and nature of the net estate
  • any physical or mental disability of any applicant or beneficiary

The claim fundamentally failed in two respects. First, the estate was relatively small, 80% of which was tied up in the house where M had lived for several years and wished to remain following its modification. The remaining cash asset was small and required by M to cover her daily needs. Second, M’s illness was ultimately terminal but the prognosis for MND was notoriously uncertain. Her own income was very modest and she would require all of it to live in dignity and comfort.

C had claimed that she and her husband lived in a £240,000 property with no saving or other assets, they had credit card debts of around £20,000 and they were incurring bank charges of £450 per month. She claimed that they could not go on holiday unless they charged it to a credit card.

In reality, however, C and her husband had a high combined income which adequately met their daily needs. Whilst that income had diminished slightly whilst C was on maternity leave, her job was open for her if she wanted to return. They led a comfortable life and the high figure they paid for loans, credit cards and bank charges was self-inflicted.

The circumstances of this case are common to many families. Second marriages, two sets of children and the inevitable opportunity for one or more of the children (normally those of the first marriage) to be disappointed. Sometimes estates are not large enough to look after everyone. If they are, then appropriate Will drafting and open discussions with the family can avert this type of claim.

However, there are still many instances of family members who believe they are entitled to inherit and when disappointed seek to bring claims. As this case reminds us, the legislation provides a restrictive framework for deciding whether any award should be made, and just because someone believes they are entitled to a share is not nearly enough.