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Inheritance claims time limit – High Court grants permission to bring claim after nearly 26-year delay

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The High Court has granted a widow permission to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 nearly 26 years after the deadline to do so expired. The decision in Bhusate v Patel [2019] EWHC 470 (Ch) is the longest reported time extension ever granted by the Court for this type of claim.

The general rule - Inheritance claims time limit

The Inheritance Act allows certain types of people, such as spouses and 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 Inheritance Act includes the time limit and states that an application must be brought within six months from the date on which a Grant of Representation (such as a Grant of Probate) with respect to the estate is first taken out.

If the six-month time limit has passed, a person claiming under the Inheritance Act will first need to seek permission from the Court. This is much more than a rubber-stamping exercise and the Court will consider the facts very carefully. For more information about the six-month rule, see our blog post “Inheritance Act Claims Time Limit”.

The facts in Bhusate v Patel [2019]

This case involved a claim by Mrs Bhusate, the third wife and widow of Kashinath Bhusate (“the Deceased”), who died in 1990. Because there was no Will, the Deceased’s estate was to be divided according to the rules of intestacy between Mrs Bhusate and the Deceased’s six children.

Unfortunately, there was much ill will between Mrs Bhusate and four of the Deceased’s children from his first marriage. The estate administration came to a complete halt. The main estate asset, a house, was never sold. Mrs Bhusate and her son remained in the house.

In 2017, Mrs Bhusate issued several claims in relation to the estate. Those claims were dismissed in September 2018. Mrs Bhusate’s Inheritance Act claim was not dismissed and instead proceeded to a hearing on whether the Court would give her permission to bring the claim.

Application of the law to the facts

Chief Master Clark reviewed previous inheritance claim cases involving applications for permission to bring an Inheritance Act claim after the time limit, six-month deadline, had expired. He noted that Berger v Berger sets out seven guidelines for the Court to consider.

The Chief Master reviewed the Berger v Berger guidelines and concluded that it was “right and proper” to grant her permission to bring a claim. The Court summarised its four key findings as follows:

  1. Mrs Bhusate has a very strong Inheritance Act claim;
  2. The delay in bringing the claim was because she was effectively powerless against her step-children;
  3. The reason Mrs Bhusate did not get anything from the Deceased’s estate is because her step-children first hindered the administration of the estate, then argued that she had missed the deadline; and
  4. If she were not given permission to bring the claim, Mrs Bhusate would be left with no other remedy and be homeless.

A major factor was the Chief Master’s determination of the reasons Mrs Bhusate did not bring her claim earlier. The defence argued that she failed to bring a claim earlier because she was indolent, and that the reason she did not receive anything from the Deceased’s estate was because she failed in her duties as co-executrix. Chief Master Marsh disagreed, citing the obstacles she faced including her lack of education, financial hardship, cultural background and poor English. Instead, he found that she was “effectively powerless” from at least 1994 onwards:

“She lacked money, experience and understanding. She faced four well-educated and comfortably off step-children who were unwilling to engage with her. There was a significant imbalance between them and the claimant. In light of this analysis…it is difficult to see what she could have done. That she did nothing is unsurprising.”

Comment

It would be helpful for the Court of Appeal to comment on section 4 of the Inheritance Act. There is no doubt that 26 years is an exceptionally long delay, much longer than many practitioners had imagined possible. Chief Master Marsh’s decision, moreover, seems at odds with Cowan v Foreman, a February 2019 case which garnered a lot of attention. The Court in Cowan adopted a much stricter approach and refused permission to bring a claim brought 17 months out of time, although admittedly the two cases have very different facts.

In the meantime, practitioners will be faced with the difficult task of advising clients on Inheritance Act deadlines. What is clear from both cases is that applications for permission to bring late Inheritance Act claims are very fact-specific. Potential claimants should seek legal advice as promptly as possible and be aware of the inheritance claims time limit, or else they may miss the opportunity of bringing their claim altogether.

If you are considering making an Inheritance Act claim, or if you are defending an inheritance claim which you think has been brought out of time, please contact a member of our Contentious Private Client department.

 

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