In this recent case the claimant brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 against his stepfather’s estate, as a child of the family. The Act allows a child of the family to apply to the court for an order where, because of intestacy, it would be reasonable to make financial provision for the child. The deceased had died intestate (without a will) and his cousins would otherwise benefit from his estate, but not the step-child.
Key to the case was how much significance ought to be attributed to the deceased’s expressed wishes. In evidence, the court found the claimant had a close relationship with the deceased and had received financial support from the deceased during his lifetime. The claimant had also received verbal assurances from the deceased he would benefit under his will and his family had relied on this. This was considered by the court to represent “something more” than purely demonstrating a need for maintenance and the requisite relationship; a moral claim rather than a purely financial one. The case appears to contradict Lord Justice Goff’s judgment in the earlier case of Re Coventry, which held a statement by a deceased that they wanted a particular person to benefit was of limited value. However, the court distinguished the ruling in this case by stating where a deceased gave reasons why someone should or should not benefit, it would be enough to establish a perceived moral claim.
Whilst this is a County Court decision and remains only persuasive, it has certainly muddied what appeared to be long settled waters. One practical concern is it may lower the evidential burden of proving a deceased’s wishes, where a will or letter of wishes is not readily available. It also leaves a deceased’s estate open to potential claims under the Act from individuals the deceased may have favoured on a personal level, but perhaps not to the extent of wanting them to benefit from their estate. Having said that, this does appear to be the right conclusion in this case. It was never in dispute that the claimant was considered a child of the family and by definition should have been treated in the same way a biological child would have been treated. The claimant also acted in reliance of the deceased’s wishes and was in genuine financial need at the time of the death. The main issue here is with the court’s haphazard approach, in particular extending the test set out by Lord Justice Goff in Re Coventry to attribute significance to an expressed reason for intending to benefit a person. Nevertheless, the guidance in Re Coventry remains the precedent.