The myth of testamentary freedom
People often assume that when they eventually die they shall be free to leave all their worldly goods to whoever they choose in their will. However, the true legal position is very different. We do not have ‘testamentary freedom’. The courts will step in to redistribute an estate whenever there is a need for justice to be done.
The Inheritance Act
The most relevant piece of law is the Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependants) Act 1975 which allows specified groups of people such as husbands, wives and children to make an inheritance claim where a will (or the intestacy rules) fails to make adequate financial provision for their needs.
Judges are regularly required to make rulings on the implementation of the Inheritance Act and the legal position is constantly evolving.
Example of an inheritance claim made by a husband
One such case to come before the courts involved a couple in their nineties who had been married for over thirty years. During this time Mrs W had nursed her husband through the loss of his sight. Mr W had always paid all the household bills and financed their holidays. His state pension was paid straight into Mrs W’s bank account.
When Mrs W died in September 2007 Mr W was shocked to learn that her investments over the years had enabled her to amass a tidy sum of £670,000. He was even more surprised to find out that she had not left any of it to him in her Will. Her fortune, which included the family home (registered in her sole name) had instead been left to Mrs W’s daughter by a previous relationship, with other financial gifts to grandchildren and charities.
A further blow for Mr W was that she had changed her Will only a year prior to her death. Under the previous Will he would have inherited £50,000 and would have been allowed to stay in the family home until he died; what solicitors call a ‘life interest’. It is believed that Mrs W had gone against her solicitor’s advice in changing her Will after her husband became legally blind as she thought he would die before her due to his health.
With just £40,000 in savings and surviving on a state pension Mr W was left homeless as a result of Mrs W’s Will. Mr W therefore brought a claim against his late wife’s estate for ‘reasonable financial provision’ under the 1975 Inheritance Act.
Out of court settlement
After lengthy negotiations he received a sum of £225,000 in an out-of-court settlement. This enabled Mr W to purchase a house of his own and therefore secure his financial independence.
So, whilst you can leave your estate to whoever you wish, the law is on hand to rectify particular injustices should the outcome be manifestly unfair.
Spouses tend to have the strongest claims under the 1975 Inheritance Act, but there are other categories of people who are entitled to bring a claim including co-habitees, children and financial dependants.
The needs and resources of the parties
When an Inheritance Claim is brought against an estate the court will weigh up the needs and resources of the claimant with the needs and resources of those who benefit under the Will (or Intestacy if there is no Will). However, as happened in this case, such claims often settle out of court with the costs of all parties usually being paid from the estate.
Free Inheritance claim assessment
If you feel that you might have a claim against an estate and would like to know where you stand then please contact our team of specialist inheritance lawyers based in Devon and Somerset for a free assessment and details of No Win, No Fee funding options.