Daughter cut out of will loses animal charities legal fight

Heather Ilott has been embroiled in a decade-long battle over the proceeds of her mother’s estate

Three animal charities have won a case at the Supreme Court against a woman cut out of her mother’s £500,000 will.

Heather Ilott’s mother Melita Jackson left most of her estate to charities but not a penny to her daughter when she died in 2004.

Mrs Ilott was awarded £50,000 by a judge, which was tripled on appeal.

The charities challenged the increase, saying people should be free to choose beneficiaries, and the court agreed she would receive only the original amount.

Mrs Ilott, an only child, was rejected by her mother at the age of 17 after she left home in 1978 to live with her boyfriend, Nicholas Ilott, whom she later married.

She and her mother never reconciled their differences, and when 70-year-old Mrs Jackson died in 2004, she left nothing for her daughter, but almost all of her £486,000 estate to The Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

The court heard that mother-of-five Mrs Ilott, from Great Munden, Hertfordshire, had no pension and was living on state benefits when she appealed over the will and was awarded £50,000 by a district judge in 2007.

The sum was increased by the appeal court in 2015 – £140,000 to buy her housing association property, and another £20,000 structured to allow her to keep her state benefits.

The court ruled that Mrs Ilott would otherwise face a life of poverty because she was on benefits and could not afford to go on holiday or buy clothes for her children.

‘Expect no inheritance from me’

Clive Coleman, BBC legal correspondent

When Melita Jackson died in 2004 she made it crystal clear she didn’t want her estranged daughter, Heather Ilott to benefit, and so left her £500,000 estate to three animal charities, with which she had no real connection.

Before her death in 2004, Mrs Jackson wrote in a letter to lawyers: “I can see no reason why my daughter should benefit in any way from my estate. I have made it clear to my daughter… that she can expect no inheritance from me when I die.”

She explicitly instructed the executors of her will to fight any claim Mrs Ilott might make after her death.

The relationship between mother and daughter worsened when aged 17 Mrs Ilott eloped with a man her mother disapproved of, but who she remains married to.

There were failed reconciliation attempts which were blamed on both sides.

Her mother Mrs Jackson was described in the appeal court as “capricious and harsh” and was said to have “unreasonably excluded” her daughter from her will.

The animal charities argued that the appeal judges “fell into error” when deciding to increase the maintenance payout.

James Aspden, animal charities’ solicitor said the ruling showed people’s wishes mattered

Supreme Court justices were told that the appeal against that increase had been brought by the animal charities “largely on principle” because of the possible impact on other cases, and “some arrangement” – not disclosed in court – had been made with Mrs Ilott in the event of the appeal succeeding.

James Aspden, the solicitor acting for the three animal charities, said the Supreme Court had upheld a “vital principle”.

“It reaffirms in a unanimous sense from the highest court in the land that principle that we’re all free to choose who will benefit when we die.

“What we’ve seen the Supreme Court do today is clear things up, in the sense of how the Inheritance Act works, how far that freedom goes, and our hope and our belief following this judgement, is that we now have a much better idea where we all stand.”

Heather Ilott’s lawyer, Martin Oliver, said his client was “very disappointed”

Timeline of a protracted court battle

  • 2002: Melita Jackson makes her last will with a letter explaining she had disinherited her only daughter after she walked out of the family home in 1978 to live with her boyfriend
  • 2004: Mrs Jackson dies, aged 70
  • 2007: Heather Ilott challenges the will under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act and is awarded £50,000 on the basis she had been “unreasonably” excluded, but when she applies for a larger share of the money, a High Court judge reverses the decision to award it to her in the first place
  • 2011: The Court of Appeal rules Mrs Ilott is entitled to a share of the money after all
  • 2014: Mrs Ilott loses a battle to get a larger share of the money at the High Court
  • 2015: The decision was successfully challenged at the Court of Appeal and Mrs Ilott is awarded £164,000
  • 2017: Three animal charities set to benefit from the majority of Mrs Jackson’s estate win a Supreme Court challenge, resulting in Mrs Ilott’s sum being reduced to the original £50,000

Lawyers said on Mrs Ilott’s behalf: “Heather is naturally very disappointed with the outcome of the Supreme Court judgment.

“Some of the judges have found that the current law is unsatisfactory and this will no doubt raise broader questions in the future.”

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