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Animal charities win battle in fight over inheritance case

A woman, who was cut out of her mother’s £500,000 will, has lost out to three animal charities at the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment this month.

In 2004, Melita Jackson died and left most of her estate to three animal charities and completely cut her only child, daughter Helen Ilott, out of her will.

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

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

The history between mother and daughter was a strained one, with Mrs Ilott being 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.

Neither Mrs Ilott nor her mother ever reconciled their differences, and when 70-year-old Mrs Jackson died in 2004, she left absolutely nothing for her daughter and almost all of her £486,000 estate to three animal charities: 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 provision and was living on state benefits when she appealed over the will and was awarded £50,000 by a district judge back in 2007.

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

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

‘Expect no inheritance from me when I die’

When Melita Jackson died in 2004 she had made it very clear that 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.

Crucially, 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.

Melita Jackson had also explicitly instructed the executors of her will to fight any claim her daughter might bring after her death.

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

There were failed reconciliation attempts during the intervening years 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.

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”, adding,”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.”

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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This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

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