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The freedom to disinherit

In 2002 Melita Jackson made her last will accompanied by a letter confirming she had disinherited her only daughter, Heather Ilot, after she eloped at aged 17 and was instead leaving her £486,000 estate to three animal charities. Following Mrs Jackson’s death in 2004, Heather spent the next eight years challenging the provisions in her late mother’s will and was awarded £164,000 by the Court of Appeal in 2015. The three animal charities launched an appeal against this decision and the Supreme Court has now ruled that Heather’s award should be reduced to £50,000.

This ten year dispute has raised interesting questions about the right of individuals to disinherit their children and other family members. The charities based their appeal on the grounds that an individual should have complete freedom to choose their beneficiaries, regardless of family ties or their children’s expectations. Mrs Jackson had expressed in writing that her daughter “should expect no inheritance from me when I die” and instructed her executors to fight any claim from Heather. Mrs Jackson therefore clearly did not want her daughter to receive anything from her estate.

Many are hailing the successful appeal as a victory for confirming the vital and basic principle that individuals should have the right to choose who benefits from their estate when they die. There are suggestions that this decision could reduce the number of appeals brought by estranged family members who have been disinherited, bringing welcome relief to individuals that their wishes and intentions expressed in their will are going to be upheld. Others however, remain disappointed and somewhat puzzled that Heather received any provision when Mrs Jackson had made her wishes so explicitly clear.

What is clear however is the importance of having a clearly drafted and detailed letter of wishes to accompany your will explaining the reasoning behind the decision to disinherit a family member, which could prove vital in successfully defending any claim against your estate.

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Mark Leeson Partner & Head of Family

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