Three animal charities have won a landmark ruling in a £500,000 legal battle with a woman over her mother’s estate which they say will make it easier for charities to receive future legacies.
The Supreme Court today ruled in favour of the Blue Cross, the RSPCA and the RSPB, who were appealing against a July 2015 decision by the Court of Appeal to award £164,000 to Heather Ilott, the estranged daughter of Melita Jackson, who left all of her assets of £500,000 to the three organisations in 2004.
Today’s ruling means that, as opposed to Mrs Ilott receiving £164,000 of her estranged mother’s £500,000 will, she will now receive just £50,000.
This £50,000 figure was originally awarded to Ilott in a 2007 county court ruling, which Ilott herself appealed, claiming the sum was insufficient.
Ilott had been estranged from her mother for over 25 years at the time of Jackson’s death in 2004. Jackson had also written a letter to accompany her will to the executor of her estate which confirmed her intention not to leave money to her daughter.
According to the judgement, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favour of the three charities, overturning the previous decision of the Court of Appeal, finding “errors” with which the court exercised its power “to award reasonable financial provision” as listed under s.3 of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.
Previous stories on this legal case
Ruling ‘underlines important of the deceased’s wishes’ says charities
In a joint statement from the Blue Cross, RSPCA and the RSPB, the three charities welcomed the Supreme Court decision and said that it made clear “that judges should exercise great care before using those powers, underlining the importance of the deceased’s wises”.
The joint statement said: “We are pleased that the Supreme Court has given welcome reassurance that - save in limited and specific circumstances – the wishes recorded in a person's will must be respected. Blue Cross, RSPCA and RSPB and the charitable sector as a whole, rely on generous gifts left in wills, without which much of their valuable work could not be done.
“This judgement will allow us to continue to honour the wishes of individuals who choose to remember charities in their will.”
James Aspden, partner at Wilsons Solicitors who represented the three charities, said: “The Supreme Court's unanimous ruling confirms, very clearly, that we are in general free to choose who will inherit our property when we die.
“It clears up a number of points where the law had become uncertain and will enable people drafting wills to give clearer advice to their clients. The most important message it sends is that your wishes matter and that if you choose to record those wishes in a will, they will be listened to."
Lord Hughes, one of the Supreme Court judges who handed down the ruling, said: “Charities depend heavily on testamentary bequests for their work, which is by definition of public benefit and in many cases will be for demonstrably humanitarian purpose.
“More fundamentally,” the judge said. “These charities were the chosen beneficiaries of the deceased.”
‘Charities do not have to justify their position as beneficiaries’
Today’s Supreme Court ruling has clarified that charities “do not have to justify their position as beneficiaries” according to law firm Bates Well Braithwate.
Commenting on the findings by the Supreme Court, Leticia Jennings, senior associate at BWB, said that the findings should “comfort” all charities in the UK who rely on legacies for a large part of their incomes.
“Importantly, the Supreme Court recognised that charities rely heavily on gifts left to them by will and that family ties do not automatically take precedence over gifts left to charities. It has been the law for over 40 years and remains the case that family members can seek reasonable financial provision from a deceased’s estate, but the Supreme Court has today confirmed that the courts will only interfere with a person’s testamentary freedom in very particular circumstances.
“Charities, and those wishing to leave a gift to a charity in their will, should be comforted that the outcome of the case does not represent a blanket threat to charity legacies.”
From Fundraising magazine