It may come as no surprise to most people that when a claim made under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 (the Act) after the deadline date, it was considered to be too late. The big question is why did the matter trouble the court so much when the deadline had passed over 10 years ago?
In Sargeant v Sargeant  EWHC 8 Ch His Honour Judge David Cooke decided that the widow of a farmer’s application for reasonable financial provision had been made too late. Section 2 of the Act provides for permission of the court to be required if any application is made after 6 months from the date of the Grant of Probate.
The claim related to Joe’s estate. Joe was a farmer who had inherited a share in the family farm from his own parents. He also acquired other land. On his death, Joe owed substantially all of the assets of his marriage to Mary.
By his last Will, Joe left the balance of his personal chattels and the benefit of a life policy worth £75,000.00 to Mary. The remainder of his estate formed part of a discretionary trust. The potential beneficiaries were limited to Mary, their daughter Jane and Jane’s issue. The value of the estate was sworn at just over £3.2 million, subsequently, outline planning permission was obtained for housing development and it was admitted the land was worth at least £8 million.
Additional land passed to Jane, by partnership succession in the working farm, valued at a further £2 million, outside the Will. Mary claimed that she was entitled to an equal share of Joe’s assets under a constructive trust or proprietary estoppel and offered not to pursue these claims, if her claim under the Act was permitted to proceed.
Joe had left 2 letters of wishes stating that (1) all the benefit from his assets and that (2) on his death Grafton House and associated land, should be left to Mary. It was accepted that the letter was intended to mean that Mary had the right to receive income from the assets.
A difficulty arose as the farming partnership had not historically paid any rent for the use of land and the assets did not produce very much income.
Financial difficulties arose and the executors of Joe’s estate wrote to Mary setting out various alternatives.
An option agreement had been entered into for some of the land, which had led to significant projected increases in land value. Further discussions took place in relation to the possibility of selling some land.
Unfortunately, Mary did not seek independent legal advice until much later.
The court reviewed permission for Mary to make a claim outside the 6 month time limit and set out the following 7 considerations:
- The court’s discretion is unfettered, but must be exercised judicially in accordance with what is right and proper.
- The onus was on Mary to show sufficient grounds for the granting of permission to apply out of time.
- The court must consider whether Mary had acted promptly and the circumstances in which she had applied for an extension of time after the expiry of the time limit.
- Whether negotiations had started within the time limit?
- Had the estate been distributed before Mary intimated her claim?
- Would dismissal of the claim leave Mary without recourse to other remedies?
- Looking at the position as it is now, did Mary have an arguable case under the Act if the application was allowed to proceed?
His Honour Judge David Cooke held that Mary had not made out a sufficient case for it to be just to permit her claim to proceed. No material facts had been concealed from Mary. The Judge did not consider Mary’s delay in bringing a claim had been reliant upon any statements from Joe before his death. The Judge considered that Mary had decided to continue to work within the arrangements, rather than explore whether she had any option available to vary them.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but unfortunately many people fall into the trap of muddling through matters, rather than seeking independent legal advice.
Had Mary sought professional advice at the outset, it is likely the outcome would have been totally different.