Inheritance Act claims – the key points to consider before taking action

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The distribution of a person’s estate following their death can sometimes be disputed regardless of what was written in their Will. Whilst a person can choose to leave their estate to whomever they wish, the law makes some provisions for certain individuals who might have reasonably expected to receive an inheritance but received less than they needed, or were excluded entirely.

The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (the Inheritance Act) is designed to protect those parties who are financially reliant upon another individual who then passes away without ensuring there is sufficient inheritance left to cover their dependant’s ongoing needs.

This could include where a dependant has been omitted by error or design, or if there is no Will in existence, and the rules of intestacy dictate the distribution of assets. In successful claims, the Inheritance Act empowers the Court to alter how the estate is ultimately distributed.

However, the Inheritance Act does establish specific conditions as to exactly who can take legal action and the considerations that may lead to a viable claim.

Who is eligible to bring a claim against a person’s estate?

The challenge may come from a beneficiary (often a close relative of the deceased) who feels that they have not received adequate financial provision or someone who has been overlooked entirely, provided that they meet any of the following criteria:

  • The spouse or civil partner. Under the terms of the Inheritance Act, a spouse is likely to be awarded more than any other category of the applicant;
  • A former spouse or former civil partner, unless they have remarried or entered into a new civil partnership;
  • Any person who, in the two years immediately before the date of death, lived in the same household as the deceased, either as their spouse or civil partner;
  • A child of the deceased;
  • Any person who was treated by the deceased as a child of the family; and
  • Any person who, immediately before the death, was being maintained, wholly or partly, by the deceased.

Claims can also be made in an intestacy situation by the same categories of claimant.

How is reasonable ‘financial provision’ defined?

Under the Inheritance Act, ‘reasonable financial provision’ refers to “financial provision as it would be reasonable in all the circumstances of the case for the applicant to receive for his maintenance”.

This is applicable to any claimant who isn’t a spouse or a civil partner because, for them, financial provision isn’t limited to simply what is required for ‘maintenance’. In instances where the claimant and the deceased are divorced, the Court will consider what a spouse or civil partner could have expected in a divorce settlement, though it won’t set a minimum or maximum amount.

For all other eligible claimants, the Court will assess what is realistically needed for their maintenance. Valuing such claims can be incredibly complex and requires the availability of detailed information outlining the claimant’s financial resources and expenditure, along with documentation that demonstrates the standard of living they enjoyed up until the death of the deceased and their maintenance needs.

How do you make an Inheritance Act claim?

The stages of making a claim will be case-specific. However, in all situations, it will be important to seek expert legal advice as soon as possible to ensure that protocols are correctly followed.

The first step should be the thorough collation of financial and circumstantial evidence so that the claim can be set out in writing. This must be backed by supporting documentation that identifies explicitly what financial support is required. Written or face-to-face negotiations as well as formal mediation are normally the preferred routes, as costs can quickly spiral for all parties should the matter reach Court.

On occasion, there might be a need for urgent financial support. If a mutual agreement cannot be reached on such matters, then an interim application can be made to the Court.

How long do you have to make an Inheritance Act claim?

Barring a few exceptional circumstances, an Inheritance Act claim must usually be made within six months of the Grant of Probate or Letters of Administration from the Court. The duration of any negotiations or contact between the parties prior to a Grant being obtained, or negotiations after a claim has been issued and the time is taken to get to a Court hearing, is not included as part of the six-month period.

The time required to complete a claim and any ensuing legal proceedings will depend on several factors. This can range from six to nine months for less complex matters, whilst the most intricate cases can take considerably longer to resolve.

Your Solicitor should provide an accurate estimate of the likely timescales involved at each stage, fully explaining any necessary revisions and advising on how to bring delayed cases back on schedule as far as possible.

What is the executor’s role in Inheritance Act claims?

Executors are expected to remain neutral in Inheritance Act claims, irrespective of who the beneficiaries of the estate turn out to be. They have a duty to provide the Court with full details of the estate.  If they act impartially, they should be able to recover any resulting costs arising from the matter out of the estate (unless the executor is also a beneficiary). However, if they take a prejudiced approach to defending the claim, they may find themselves being personally liable for any costs incurred, including those of the claimant.

Can Court proceedings be avoided?

Given the time, expense, and stress that Court proceedings involve, they should only be considered as a last resort. In some cases where an estate is very small, it may not be cost-effective to make a claim at all.

Before taking a route through Court, there are several alternative paths available, from which an agreement between parties can be reached. Successful written or face-to-face negotiations, or a formal mediation, can help avoid a Court hearing even after proceedings have been issued.

However, whether you are issuing or defending an Inheritance Act claim, you should be prepared for the possibility of the matter ending up in Court.

How much will it cost to make a claim? 

From the outset, your Solicitor should present the various options and alternative arrangements available to you, and regularly review the funding status of your claim.

What factors determine the success of a claim?

Whilst each case is judged on its own merits, the Court must apply the same principles to each matter in order to determine the reasonable financial provision that is applicable. The factors that the Court must consider are:

  • The financial resources and needs that any claimant and/or beneficiary have or are likely to have;
  • Any obligations and responsibilities which the deceased had towards any claimant or beneficiary of the estate;
  • The size and nature of the net estate;
  • Any physical or mental disability of any claimant or any beneficiary; and
  • Any other matter, including the conduct of the claimant or any other person.

Depending on your relationship with the deceased, the Court will also examine specific factors, such as the duration of a marriage and the age of a spouse. Therefore, it’s important to provide your lawyer with as much information as possible about the financial circumstances of everyone involved at the earliest opportunity. A full picture of the situation will allow them to better assess the claim and advise you about the possible outcome.

In the event of a successful claim, the Court will often order that the claimant receives money from the estate as a remedy. Occasionally, the remedy could be the right to live in a property owned by the deceased or have a property transferred directly to the claimant.

If you need support with making or defending an Inheritance Act claim, our experienced team at Buckles can provide impartial, expert advice. Please contact us for a consultation.