Keep it legal: Inheritance Act claims

A claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 is a plea to the court to go against the wishes recorded in a deceased person's will and thereby to increase the provision made for the claimant. It is typically brought by a relative of the deceased or by someone the deceased maintained during their life, who asks for the testator's charitable legacy to be reduced or abolished.

For charities, these claims present some difficulties. On the one hand, a charity has a duty to its beneficiaries to protect its income and might therefore consider it right to resist the claim. On the other hand, it is well established that a charity has no 'need' for provision from any deceased person's estate in the sense the court is concerned with. A charity's role in a claim such as this is, therefore, not to establish its own need for provision from the estate, but to protect the deceased person's freedom to decide what should happen to their property after death.

A recent case provides some reassurance that courts will protect this freedom. In 2006, the late sculptress Mary Spencer Watson left her 17th century manor house to heritage charity the Landmark Trust. Her goddaughter claimed increased financial provision from the estate. She had debts of £148,000, and her outgoings exceeded her income by £450 a month.

Her claim failed. The judge decided that her need for money did not mean that the deceased's estate had to provide it. Watson had done a lot for her goddaughter during her lifetime and the judge decided that the goddaughter's financial difficulties were of her own making - her need did not outweigh the importance of respecting Watson's wish to have the manor house preserved by the Landmark Trust.

Inheritance Act claims such as this are increasingly common. In most cases, charities chosen to benefit by the deceased should try to avoid litigation by finding an amicable solution. A compromise on suitable terms will almost always be the most favourable result. But charities should not feel embarrassed about defending weak cases such as the Watson case or about taking appropriate legal advice. A testator's right to decide what will happen to their property after they die is, after all, something every charity has a reason to protect.

 - James Aspden is an associate in the charities team at Wilsons LLP

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