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Inheritance Act 1975 claims by children – Court rejects public policy arguments by Earl’s daughter

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The High Court has dismissed a claim by the daughter of the 7th Earl Cowley against his £1.3 million estate. In reaching its conclusions, the Court firmly rejected the public policy arguments she was trying to make.

The claim

This was a claim by Ms Tara Wellesley (“the Claimant”), 56 years old, against the £1.3 million estate of her late father, the 7th Earl Cowley (“the Deceased”). The Deceased died in June 2016. By the terms of his Will, he divided his estate as follows:

  1. £20,000 to the Claimant;
  2. £68,750 in trust for a number of other family members and charities; and
  3. half of the remaining estate to his son, the 8th Earl Cowley, and the other half to four of his five step-daughters (subject to a life interest to his fourth wife).

The Claimant argued she should have received more from her father’s estate. She made a claim for “reasonable financial provision” under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“the 1975 Act”). This type of claim has received a lot of media attention in the past few years, following a number of highly publicised cases.

What the Inheritance Act 1975 allows

The 1975 Act enables certain classes of person, such as children, to argue that a Will, or where applicable the intestacy rules, does not make reasonable financial provision for them. This should not be confused (although it often is) with arguing that the deceased person acted unreasonably. The test is an objective one, which takes into account several factors listed in the Act.

The Court’s findings

The Court in this case (Wellesley v Earl Cowley [2019] EWHC 11 (Ch)) helpfully set out its analysis of all the factors. It found that the Claimant lived within her means, despite receiving state benefits, that her special need for occupational therapy could be funded out of the £20,000 she was already receiving, and that the decision to be estranged from her late father for 25 years was a mutual one.

The series of novel arguments – including those about public policy– made by the Claimant and rejected by the Court are one of the more unique elements of this case. These include:

  1. The Court rejected the idea of a 10% rule of thumb: the Claimant argued that previous claims under the Act by adult children set a precedent for valuing such claims between 10% and 13% of the net estate. The Court held that claims should be weighted on their individual facts and that the Act made no mention of percentages.
  2. The Court refused to apply the Human Rights Act (“HRA”): the Claimant argued that her human rights had been breached, but the Court found the HRA did not apply because the case involved a private Will and not a “public authority”.
  3. The Court made no allowance for the Claimant’s son despite his health issues: the Claimant argued the Deceased should have made an allowance for her son, being a grandchild with a disability. The Claimant’s son lives in a residential home and she sought funds to be able to care for him herself. The Court confirmed that grandchildren are not a class of potential claimants under the Act, and that the Claimant could not argue he is a financial burden because he does not live with her.
  4. The Court held there is no obligation to reduce the burden on state benefits: the Claimant argued that the Deceased should have left her money to reduce the financial burden on state benefits. The Court held there was “no authority” for this proposition and that it was “not a factor or principle [it needed] to take in to account”.

To conclude, this case is a useful reminder that claims for reasonable financial provision brought under the Inheritance Act 1975 should be weighed against the factors listed in that Act. Whilst the Claimant may have felt there were public policy reasons for awarding her a larger share of the Deceased’s estate, the Court simply applied the test in the Act and determined that the £20,000 she was already receiving was reasonable provision for her, in light of all the circumstances.

If you are looking to challenge a Will, or if you are looking to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, please contact a member of our Contentious Private Client Team.

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