Financial succession planning is often a primary motive for making a will. Having the opportunity to determine where your money goes upon death can bring reassurance and peace of mind that your wishes will be followed.
However, a court ruling earlier this week has generated heated debate among legal scholars and the public as to whether the decision conflicts with the legal foundations and the desired purpose of making a will.
In this particular case a judge has ruled that an adult beneficiary, Heather Ilott, is entitled to £164,000 from her late mother's estate despite being estranged for nearly 40 years and being cut out of her mother's will.
Factors considered by the judge included Heather’s own financial income and that her late mother had no connection with the charities she had specifically named in her will as beneficiaries.
There seems to be some indication that had her late mother explained her connection with the named charities and why she had left money to them rather than concentrating on why she hadn’t left money to her daughter the outcome may have been very different.
So what impact will this have on the future of wills? Can we still determine that our possessions will be left to those they were intended for or will this case set precedent for future claims of inheritance?
This case does not take away the fact that a will is still a necessity to direct where your assets go. However, if you are going to exclude a spouse/child or an individual who is, or may have been, dependant upon you, there needs to be a good reason together with an explanation as to why you have left money to those named beneficiaries in your will. In most cases this is likely to be other children and therefore wouldn't require as full an explanation compared to leaving your estate to a friend or charity.
What this ruling highlights is the requirement for expert legal advice when drafting a will. The right legal guidance can ensure that the correct procedures are followed not only in the drafting and execution of the will but also in additional documents enclosed with the will.
We may soon see this decision appealed further by the charities that have lost inherited money. I would certainly welcome such an appeal as this decision doesn’t rest easily with me. If you are of sound mind it should remain your prerogative to be able to leave your possessions to whoever you wish.
Wills are documents that should have a large amount of certainty in the way that they are written. This court ruling creates a gulf of uncertainty, as a result practioners cannot guarantee that a successful claim is not going to be made against a will.
Hopefully it will not lead to a plethora of opportunistic claims and the worst outcome of this decision would be to see an increase in Payment Protection Insurance/No Win no Fee style claims which realistically have no merit.