Today’s Supreme Court ruling confirms that people have the right to dictate who will inherit their estates and have their wishes honoured, legal experts have concluded.
The judgment in the long-running dispute between the RSPCA, the RSPB and the Blue Cross and the daughter of a woman who had left them almost £500,000, ruled that the daughter was not entitled to a larger share of her mother’s fortune just because she expected to inherit it.
Melita Jackson, who died in 2004, had written a letter explaining her decision to leave her entire £486,000 estate to the charities and instructing her executors to fight any claim from her estranged daughter, Heather Ilott.
Ilott argued her mother had no relationship with the charities before her death and had not made reasonable provision for her, and she was in greater financial need.
Although the Supreme Court today upheld an earlier ruling awarding Ilott £50,000 of the estate, it ruled that she was not entitled to a larger sum of £163,000 because Jackson had clearly stated she wished her money to go to the charities.
Chris Millward, chief executive of the Institute of Legacy Management, said: "We are pleased by the Supreme Court’s decision in the case, which provides welcome reassurance – save in specific and limited circumstances – that donors are free to benefit whom they wish in their wills and that those final wishes will be respected.
"This ruling has brought clarity after years of confusion and concern for many in the charity and legal sectors.
"Donors can now be more confident that having up-to-date and professionally written wills means their final wishes will be honoured, and our members can continue to fulfil these wishes and ensure every charitable legacy gift achieves its greatest potential."
Rob Cope, director of Remember A Charity, said: "We respect a family’s right to challenge or contest a decision, but welcome today’s ruling and the clarity that it gives charities.
"The danger with a case like this is that it pitches family against charity, when in reality this is about ensuring a person’s final wishes are met.
"We have a flexible will system, which means it doesn’t have to be a case of one versus the other. If someone chooses to leave a gift to charity in their will, they should have the freedom to do that, always remembering that this can be supplementary to any gifts to family and friends.
"But this does underline the importance of ensuring that anyone’s last wishes are set out clearly. The fact is that contested wills are becoming more common, so it is important for charities to reduce the likelihood of a legal battle by encouraging supporters who want to leave legacies to seek professional advice when writing wills."
Vicky Browning, chief executive of the charity leaders body Acevo, said the ruling was "especially vital" for the voluntary sector.
"It is important that when people write their wills and leave money to causes that are close to their hearts, they can be sure that their wishes will be respected," she said. "The charity sector rightly strives towards better relationships with its donors, and this move is an important step towards this."
Leticia Jennings, senior associate at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, said: "Helpfully for charities, the Supreme Court has clarified that charities do not have to justify their position as beneficiaries and it is enough that a testator – exercising their testamentary freedom – chooses them.
"These comments are in stark contrast to the Court of Appeal’s comments in August 2015, that legacies to charities with which the deceased had no obvious connection should be seen as a ‘windfall’.
"Importantly, the Supreme Court recognised that charities rely heavily on gifts left to them by will and that family ties do not automatically take precedence over gifts left to charities.
"It has been the law for more than 40 years and remains the case that family members can seek reasonable financial provision from a deceased’s estate, but the Supreme Court has today confirmed that the courts will interfere with a person’s testamentary freedom only in very particular circumstances.
"Charities, and those wishing to leave gifts to charities in their wills, should be comforted that the outcome of the case does not represent a blanket threat to charity legacies."
Alison Talbot, head of charities at the law firm Penningtons Manches, said: "I’m delighted to see that there is court recognition of how charities depend heavily upon legacies for their work. It is really pleasing to see that the court has specifically described this as being ‘by definition of public benefit and in many cases will be for demonstrably humanitarian purposes’.
"There was some concern that the outcome of this case might have eroded the principle of testamentary freedom, which would almost certainly have had a negative impact on legacy income for charities, so it’s great to see that the court has been so supportive of the charity sector."
Her colleague Phillip Collins, head of charity litigation, said: "This whole saga is a great advert for early dispute resolution."
Stephen Richards, head of contentious trusts and charity legacy at the law firm Withers, said: "The Supreme Court has made the right decision today, and its judgment knocks back claims from estranged family members looking to change the terms of a will, although the door remains open.
"It is important for individuals that they can be confident their wills are going to be respected, and is important to the good work of charities that they can assume their benefactors' wishes will be honoured."
Nigel Shaw, a partner at the charity accounting firm Garbutt + Elliott, said: "If the Supreme Court had ruled against the animal charities in this case, it would have effectively been saying that people are not be able to control the destiny of their wealth. That would have had a much bigger impact on the way in which UK charities are funded."
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