The charity sector has expressed concern after the Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that a daughter should receive £163,000 that her mother had specified in her will should be left to three animal charities.
Yesterday, the court granted Heather Ilott the sum on the grounds that her mother, Melita Jackson, did not leave "reasonable provision" for her and she would otherwise face a life of poverty.
Experts have warned the decision could lead to more legal challenges to the terms of wills, which brought £1.24bn to 76 charities over the 12 months to March, according to the charity legacy consortium Legacy Foresight.
The case has lasted for almost a decade. Jackson died in 2004 after making a will in 2002 in which she left all of her £486,000 fortune to the Blue Cross, the RSPB and the RSPCA. The will included a letter that instructed her executors to defend any claim made by her daughter.
Ilott first won the right to some money from the estate in 2007, when a district judge ruled that she had been "unreasonably" excluded by her mother. She was awarded £50,000. In a bid to get more, Ilott has taken a series of legal steps in the High Court and the Court of Appeal.
Her latest appeal was heard by Lady Justice Arden, Lord Justice Ryder and Sir Colin Rimer. They ruled that under the 1975 Inheritance Act the will was not such as to make reasonable financial provision for the claimant.
In reaching the ruling, the judges took into account the financial needs of both Ilott and the charities.
Lady Justice Arden said the charities had not made any case that they had needs to be taken into account. Any money they might get from the estate was "a windfall", she said.
She said the charities could have had no expectation of benefit because the deceased had no connection with them.
Ilott, on the other hand, was the only child of the deceased and had been deprived of any expectation primarily because Jackson had "acted in an unreasonable, capricious and harsh way towards her only child".
The three charities involved and their solicitor, James Aspden, said in a statement that they would give "careful consideration" about mounting a fight against the ruling in the Supreme Court.
Aspden said: "The decision to allow this very late, further appeal against a judgment delivered in 2007 can only encourage others to appeal and will further complicate the court’s task when deciding Inheritance Act claims."
Alex McDowell, chair of Remember A Charity, said in a statement that it was "deeply concerned" about the potential impact of this ruling for charities. "The right of anyone to contest a will, wherever there are grounds to do so, must be respected, but this case draws into question what has always been a legal right of the testator to practice free will in how they divide their estate.
"This could result in fewer people choosing to support their favourite causes through their wills or increased costs for charities as a result of a growing number of claims they are duty bound to defend."
Leticia Jennings, senior associate at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, said in a statement that the judgment was "surprising and disappointing" for charities.
She said: "The court has made clear that charity beneficiaries can have no expectation of inheritance when the deceased had no obvious connection with the charities in question, describing such gifts as ‘windfalls’. The ruling has the potential to affect legacies left to non-family members, including those left to charities, and it will be interesting to see if this case opens the flood gates to more claims by adult children."
Third Sector asked the three animal charities involved how much they had spent on the case, but they were unable to confirm the figure at this stage.