Claim Against Estate by Adult Child Refused

There is a growing sense of entitlement among some adult children that they have an inherent right to a portion of a parent’s estate on death – some are entirely justified while others are not. The courts have looked increasingly sympathetically on some of these claims, leading to concerns about the erosion of testamentary freedom, but a recent claimant has lost her claim.

In Wellesley v Wellesley & Ors [2019] EWHC 11, an adult lost her claim against her late father’s estate for reasonable financial provision under the Inheritance Act 1975. The decision is notable for its departure from the recent trend for the courts allowing claims by adult children, even where there has been no contact for many years and/or a breakdown in relationship has led to the child being disinherited.

Ms Wellesley was the eldest daughter of the 7th Earl of Cowley who died leaving a £1.3m estate. She had a very difficult and troubled upbringing. Though they had been estranged for around 30 years before his death, she was left just £20,000 under his will. The Earl left the majority of his estate to his son, though he also provided an income for his (latest) wife and the residuary estate equally to his four step-children.

Ms Wellesley brought her claim saying that her legacy was not reasonable financial provision. She argued that:

  • Their estrangement was because she had been forced out of the family and into care at a young age by her father’s second wife who she said was abusive
  • She had not been in full-time employment for years because her disability (particularly ADHD) prevented her from working
  • There should be a public policy of private means to replace state benefits.


What did the court decide?

Her claim failed. The court found that she was solely to blame for her estrangement from her father because of her disruptive behaviour and a lifestyle of drink and drugs; and that she had a general tendency to blame others for her misfortunes which have arisen due to her life choices or her behaviour. The court also found that she was able to live within her means (even though her only income was in the form of benefits); and the evidence was that she did so.

The court accepted the expert evidence that though Ms Wellesley does have ADHD, this does not stop her from working, with the right support, from an occupational therapist and possibly CBT which the NHS could provide.

As for her public policy argument, the court quoted Lady Hale’s comment in the Supreme Court ruling in Ilott: “The law has not, or not yet, recognised a public interest in expecting or obliging parents to support their adult children so as to save the public money.”

Overall, the claimant’s conduct outweighed all other factors – and even if the court found differently, it said the £20,000 legacy was reasonable.

As Deputy Master Linwood’s commented: “The 1975 Act was never meant to provide in effect by way of an appeal against provision or lack of it in a will of a sum calculated on fair sharing according to need – here, maintenance. There is no system of fixed heirship or compulsory sharing as in certain civil law systems. The starting point is testamentary freedom.”

 

 

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