In the recent case of Ames v Jones 2016 a daughter's claim for reasonable financial provision from her late father’s estate was dismissed on the grounds that her lack of employment was a "lifestyle choice".
In this case, the deceased left his entire estate (worth nearly one million pounds) to his second wife, with whom he had shared over three decades of his life. The deceased’s only child, Miss Ames, an unemployed 41 year old with two children, made a claim against her father’s estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (the Inheritance Act), claiming that his will did not make reasonable financial provision for her. Miss Ames claimed that she was in financial difficulty and unable to make ends meet.
Under the Inheritance Act, a child of the deceased is entitled to bring a claim for reasonable financial provision from the deceased's estate. Importantly - and this continues to surprise many people - an adult child does not have an automatic right to inherit their parents' estates. The Inheritance Act provides that, in the case of a claim by an adult child, "reasonable financial provision" means "such financial provision as it would be reasonable in all the circumstances of the case for the applicant to receive for his maintenance".
The burden of proof is on the child claimant to show that the will (or the intestacy rules if there is no will) does not make reasonable financial provision for their maintenance. Each case will be heavily influenced by its own facts and it is possible for the court to conclude that reasonable financial provision has been made even where no financial provision has been made at all.
When considering whether the will failed to make reasonable financial provision for Miss Ames, the court had to have regard to the factors set out in section 3 of the Inheritance Act. One of the section 3 factors includes the financial needs and resources of the applicant.
In this case, while Miss Ames claimed to be in a poor financial position, she failed to provide reliable evidence that she was not able to earn her own income to meet her own needs. In comparison, her stepmother was of pensionable age and provided evidence that she only had a small disposable income.
Another section 3 factor the court takes into account is "Any obligations and responsibilities which the deceased had towards any applicant for an order or towards any beneficiary of the estate of the deceased".
In this case, the deceased's obligations and responsibilities to his wife were indisputable.
On the other hand, the Judge found that Miss Ames had over exaggerated her relationship with her father and found that her relationship with him was nothing other than normal, being neither unusually good nor unusually bad.
Unfortunately for Miss Ames the Judge considered her evidence to be unreliable and inconsistent, and in particular that she had failed to discharge the burden of proving that she was unable to obtain work and meet her own needs.
The Judge decided that Miss Ames' lack of employment was a "lifestyle choice", and that was sufficient to defeat her claim. The Judge stated "If [Miss Ames] had so satisfied me [of her current and future needs and resources], I would then have had to consider whether it was unreasonable for [the deceased] to have prioritised [his wife] ... In my opinion his will was entirely reasonable, given that [Miss Ames] is an adult who is fit to work, whilst [the deceased's wife] was his wife and partner for over 30 years and is past working age."
The Judge concluded that the mere fact an adult applicant is a child of the deceased is unlikely to be given much weight, and in practice they are unlikely to succeed, unless it can be demonstrated that the balance comes down in their favour when considering all of the factors under section 3 of the Inheritance Act.
This was therefore a very expensive exercise for Miss Ames, as in addition to her own costs of some £47,000 she was ordered to pay her stepmother's costs of some £85,000.
What does this mean?
This case is in one respect merely an example of the application of the law as it stands. However it is also a reminder that these cases can turn on the Court's view of evidence that is only properly tested on the day of trial itself - and as that often cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty, this case certainly reinforces the importance of mediation and other forms of ADR to resolve such cases.
For a full report of this case, you can read the judgment here.
If you would like advice on an Inheritance Act claim or any other probate dispute, please contact our Disputed Wills, Trusts and Estates Team by telephone on 0800 0931336, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.