The Supreme Court has ruled in favour of three animal charities in a long-running dispute over a legacy gift of almost £500,000.
Melita Jackson left her entire £486,000 estate to the Blue Cross, the RSPB, and the RSPCA when she died in 2004, but in 2007 her estranged daughter, Heather Ilott, challenged the will, saying she had been unreasonably excluded.
Jackson had not had any relationship with the charities during her lifetime, but her will included a letter explaining her decision and instructing her executors to defend any claim made by her daughter.
Ilott was initially awarded £50,000 by a district judge, who ruled Jackson had not made reasonable financial provision for her daughter, but Ilott appealed the ruling, saying the amount was too low and would affect her entitlement to benefits.
In 2015, the Court of Appeal granted her £163,000 to buy the house she lived in, on the basis that she needed and had expected to receive a share of the estate – and that the charities, which had no relationship with Jackson, had not needed nor expected a share. But the three charities appealed against the ruling.
Today’s Supreme Court Ruling reinstated the original £50,000 award to Ilott and gave the rest to the three charities.
No further appeals can be made in this case in the British courts.
The judgment says: "Charities depend heavily on testamentary bequests for their work, which is by definition of public benefit and in many cases will be for demonstrably humanitarian purposes.
"More fundamentally, these charities were the chosen beneficiaries of the deceased. They did not have to justify a claim on the basis of need under the 1975 act, as Mrs Ilott necessarily had to do."
James Aspden, a partner at Wilsons Solicitors, which represented the three charities, said the ruling confirmed the right of people to choose who would inherit their property when they died.
In a joint statement, the charities said: "We are pleased that the Supreme Court has given welcome reassurance that – save in limited and specific circumstances – the wishes recorded in a person's will must be respected.
"The Blue Cross, the RSPCA and the RSPB, and the charitable sector as a whole, rely on generous gifts left in wills, without which much of their valuable work could not be done. This judgment will allow us to continue to honour the wishes of individuals who choose to remember charities in their wills."
In a statement made through her lawyers, Wright Hassall solicitors, Illot said she was "naturally very disappointed" with the outcome of the case.
"Heather has never wanted to be in the limelight or to be at the centre of a legal debate which polarises public opinion," the statement said.
It also warned that each case would be examined by courts on their own merits so people in a similar position might be able to bring successful cases in the future.
Read the sector's reaction to the Ilott case.
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