When is a legacy not a legacy?

The recent Court of Appeal decision to award £164,000 to Heather Ilott, despite her mother’s will specifically disinheriting her, could be seen as a worrying precedent for charities. Melita Jackson’s will gave all she had to three animal charities but this will was successfully challenged by her daughter under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

Melita Jackson and Heather Ilott had been estranged for most of Heather’s adult life after she eloped with her future husband, Nicholas Ilott. Melita never forgave her daughter for this act and made it clear in her will that she did not wish her daughter to benefit in any way from her estate.

The aforementioned 1975 Act is intended to help protect the close dependants of someone who has died. It is mainly used to prevent step-parents from impoverishing children from previous marriages but has been used in this case by Heather Ilott. The Court of Appeal ruling in this case makes it clear that you are no longer completely free to bequeath your estate how you wish. If you are a parent, particularly, it appears you must make adequate provision for your children before leaving bequests to other beneficiaries, including charities.

The charities affected by this case may appeal the decision to the Supreme Court but, in the meantime, how does this affect your charity? Well, hopefully, it doesn’t! The circumstances of this case are very unusual and specific. As a result, many commentators do not believe it will be able to be used as a precedent in many other cases. So, what were these specific circumstances? First, Heather Ilott’s barrister argued that much of Melita Jackson’s wealth derived from assets paid for by her late husband and compensation money awarded to her after his death (her husband was killed in an industrial accident in 1960 two months before his daughter was born). Second, Melita Jackson had no affiliation with the three animal charities during her lifetime and had no noticeable concern for animal welfare.
The ramifications for a charity could be huge. The three charities affected by this case were large national charities but what if the estate had been left to a small local charity that had now spent the legacy? To discover eleven years later that some of the legacy was to be taken away would create an interesting legal conundrum!

So what is our advice? If your charity is named in a will, ask the solicitors handling the estate whether they are aware of any possible challenge to the will from the testator’s children. Also, check whether the testator was a supporter of your charity during their lifetime.

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