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Court decision highlights the importance of making a will
By Jill Rushton, wills and probate solicitor at the national law firm Stephensons
The decision by the Supreme Court to award £50,000 to 56-year-old Heather Ilott after her ten-year legal battle with three animal charities has been making headlines.
The case has also thrown light on some interesting legal developments over years – the growth in bequests to charity and the rise in the number of contested wills.
But despite these developments, this case only reinforces how important it is that anyone over the age of 18 should draw up a will.
Heather Ilott’s case came about after her mother, Melita Jackson, left her nothing in her will when she died. Instead, Melita Jackson left her money to the Blue Cross, RSPCA and RSPB and her will contained instructions for the executors of her estate to ‘strenuously’ fight any attempt by her daughter to challenge her final wishes.
Heather Ilott challenged that will, winning an award of £163,000 at a Court of Appeal hearing. However, the Supreme Court then overturned that decision, restoring an earlier order by a district judge that Health Ilott be awarded £50,000. The difference will go to the three charities.
Will disputes like this are on the up. From 2004 – 2009 an average of 485 will, trust and probate cases per year were heard at the Chancellery Court in London. In the following five years, this rose to an average of 633 a year.
The causes have been put down to factors such as more complicated modern day family relations and higher stakes due to the rise in house prices.
So what does the decision in Heather Ilott’s case indicate for future will disputes?
The court decision that a reasonable amount to award to Health Ilott was much less than the Court of Appeal indicated is a significant victory for large national charities for whom gifts in wills are a substantial revenue stream and largely reinforces the right of people to leave their money to whom they want.
Nearly £2bn is left in wills to charitable causes annually. The RSPCA, for example, received £63.7m from bequests in 2014 – far more than the £43.1m it obtained from donations and other contributions.
Being able to leave money to charity in this way is just one of a number of reasons why every adult should draw up a will – and not just the well off or elderly.
A will allows you to leave your money to who you want, whether that’s leaving gifts to the charities you support or giving someone you care about something to remember you by.
It also allows you to specify guardians for your children and give those guardian’s guidance on bringing up your children. If you don’t have a will, then you have no say on what happens to them after you die. You can also use a will to specify your funeral arrangements.
Many people put off drawing one up, often because it feels morbid. They can feel awkward discussing the issue with loved ones or they just don’t know how to go about making a will.
Dying intestate – without a will – can cause immense distress to your loved ones, at a time when they are already grieving over the loss of someone close to them.
Dying intestate can mean your estate ends up in the hands of an ex-husband or wife, or a distant relative you don’t know, rather than the person you would have liked to leave it to.
Under the rigid rules of intestacy, your estate is shared with your married or civil partner and other blood relatives in a strict order of priority.
Many unmarried couples assume there is no need for a will. However, despite this being widely known as a ‘common law marriage’ the arrangement has no legal standing. Unmarried partners, step-children and step-grandchildren do not inherit under intestacy.
Without a will, there’s even a risk that your estate could end up in the Government’s hands.
The assets of people who die intestate with no known immediate relatives are advertised at a rate of around 40 estates a week. About £50m a year ends up going to the Crown.
It’s big money. That’s why heir hunting companies make a tidy profit from tracking down the living heirs of people who die intestate.
Finally, even if you do want to leave your estate to the same person who would inherit under intestacy rules, you should still make a will. Without one, the business of settling your affairs could take much longer and can cost thousands of pounds.
Making a will can be relatively simple and inexpensive. A solicitor can usually draw up a basic will for around £250. A joint will can cost around £400.
The process is usually fairly straight forward and probate solicitors are experienced in dealing with all sorts of issues around wills and inheritance. In short, there’s nothing to fear.