The High Court has confirmed that Inheritance Act claims should be brought as soon as possible, before the time limit is expired. The case of Sargeant v Sargeant & Another  EWHC 8 (Ch) is a useful reminder of the importance of taking quick action.
The Six-Month Time Limit
The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (or “Inheritance Act”) allows certain persons such as spouses or children to seek “reasonable financial provision” if they feel they are not sufficiently provided for in a deceased person’s will (or if there is no will, under intestacy rules).
Section 4 of the 1975 Act states that an application must be made within six months from the date on which representation with respect to the estate is first taken out. In other words, once the executor named in the deceased’s will has obtained a Grant of Probate, a person has six months to make their claim. The same rule applies in the case of intestacy – that is to say, where the deceased had no valid will – in which case the six-month deadline starts running when the administrator obtains Letters of Administration.
How to Make a Claim Out of Time
After the six-month time limit expires, the only way to make a claim is with the court’s permission.
In Sargeant, a widow was seeking permission to make an Inheritance Act claim nearly 10 years after the grant of probate – well beyond the six-month time limit. It appears the widow brought the claim following a change in her financial circumstances, which made her unhappy with the arrangements in place since Mr Sargeant had died.
The High Court reviewed the case law on making claims out of time and concluded that, as a general rule, the six-month deadline is a strict one. In some circumstances, however, the court will allow a late claim. The court set out the relevant principles as follows:
- “ Almost all cases dealing with the exercise of the discretion to permit a claim to proceed outside the six month time limit start with reference to the six non-exhaustive considerations identified by Megarry VC in Re Salmon  Ch 167, which Mr Mitchell summarised as follows:
- the discretion is unfettered, and is to be exercised judicially and in accordance with what is just and proper
- the onus is on the claimant to establish a substantial case for the claim to proceed despite the normal rule, which Megarry VC said was "no triviality", noting that the rule was a substantive provision and not a mere procedural time limit imposed by rules of court which might be treated with indulgence
- it is material to consider how promptly and in what circumstances the claim has been brought outside the time limit
- it is material to consider whether negotiations were commenced within the time limit, or whether any delay after the expiry of the limit may be accounted for by negotiations
- it is relevant to consider whether the estate has been distributed before a claim under the Act has been made or notified
- it is relevant to consider whether the claimant has any other redress, for example against advisers, if permission is refused
-  The court should also consider whether the claimant has an arguable claim, which is to be approached on the basis of considering whether it would be sufficient to survive an application for summary judgment; see Re Dennis  2 All ER 140. […]”
After considering the facts, the Court held that the case could not proceed. HHJ Cooke wrote that the “reality is that [the widow] took her own decision to continue to work within the arrangements provided for her by the will rather than to explore whether she had any option available to vary them, in the full knowledge of the financial difficulties she was under, and maintained that decision over a very long period.” Notably, the judge came to this finding even though he recognised the widow had an otherwise arguable case.
The judge found that over the years the rest of the family had come to expect they would inherit Mr Sargeant’s wealth and that “it would not be right” to let the widow make such a late claim.
This case reinforces the importance of acting quickly and that it is not enough to merely rely on the strength of a claim. If a potential claimant waits too long to take legal advice, she or he may miss the opportunity of making the claim altogether.
If you are considering an Inheritance Act claim or are concerned you might run out of time to bring a claim, please contact Nicholas Choiniere from our Contentious Private Client team at 0113 336 3349 or Nicholas.Choiniere@ClarionSolicitors.com.
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