If a loved one upon whom you depend financially fails to make reasonable provision for you in his or her will, judges have the power to put that right. However, there are time limits that apply to such proceedings and that is why it is vital to consult a solicitor straight away. In a recent case, a woman who wished to bring such a claim succeeded in persuading the Court of Appeal that the circumstances of her case meant that the time limit should be extended.
The woman was in her 70s, and her husband's estate was valued at more than £29 million when he died. Although they had been together for about 25 years, they only married shortly before his death. However, she had given up work at his behest and was largely financially dependent on him.
By his will, the husband placed almost all of his estate into two trusts. The wife was a beneficiary of both trusts and, in a letter of wishes, the husband stated his desire that she should be treated as the principal beneficiary of one of them and that her standard of living should be maintained at a reasonable level throughout her life.
However, apart from the contents of their joint bank account and some chattels of little value, the wife received nothing directly from the estate. She had only a life interest in her home, and that could be terminated at any time by the trustees. In the circumstances, she took the view that the will failed to reasonably provide for her and sought direct provision from the estate by launching proceedings under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.
Her claim, however, hit a stumbling block in the form of Section 4 of the Act, which provides that proceedings under the Act must be brought within six months of the date on which representation with respect to the relevant estate is first taken out. That deadline was missed by about 17 months and a judge refused to exercise his discretion so as to enable her to proceed with her claim.
Upholding her appeal against that decision, the Court noted that the entirety of the delay was properly explicable. Once she realised the weakness of her position, the wife had engaged in negotiations with the trustees, including mediation, in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the matter without the need for litigation. In those circumstances, the judge was plainly wrong and erred in principle in refusing to extend the time limit.
Noting that the wife's claim had a real, rather than fanciful, prospect of success, the Court found that the delay was not a lengthy one when seen in context and that other beneficiaries had suffered little prejudice. Although the estate had been distributed by the time she lodged her claim, its size meant that no one would have to return any monies received. The Court's ruling opened the way for the wife to proceed with her claim under the Act.