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whose inheritance is it anyway?

By Heather Tomlinson | 13 August 2015

For most of us, our biggest act of generosity will be fulfilled when we die.

The details are decided years or sometimes decades, earlier: the question of who we leave all our possessions to when we die. Many of us think that this is our own personal decision, and it’s a very important one, that gives a profound message of who we are and who we love.

But a recent court ruling has reminded us that inheritance is not just a matter of who we choose to leave our worldly goods to.

Last month the courts decided that Heather Ilott, who had been cut out of her mother’s will in favour of animal charities, is actually entitled to a third of the £486,000 estate. Melita Jackson, Mrs Ilott's mother (who died in 2004), had explained why she wanted to exclude her daughter, as well as specifically asking the executors of the will to challenge any attempt to divert her estate away from the three charities listed as beneficiaries. But, in a landmark ruling, the courts decided that her reasoning wasn’t strong enough.

The charities concerned are naturally disappointed, with the wider charitable community now worried that other gifts in wills may be challenged in this way, and their donor's wishes might be superseded by the courts.

Legal restrictions on inheritance are not new. The novels of the 19th Century were frequently based on the consequences of the ‘fee tail’ – where an ancestor decided that his entire estate could not be broken up, but instead passed to only one male heir, to keep it intact. The nation’s favourite novel, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, was based on such a situation: the five Bennet daughters and their mother would be left penniless when their father died, and his entire estate passed on to their cousin. There was nothing they could do: the father had no choice about how he left his will. This caused a number of problems for people of the time, not least for daughters: finally the law was abolished in 1925.

As in the plots of 19th Century novels, this recent court case tells a sad story of family feuding. For 26 years, until her death, this mum was not speaking to her daughter and wanted nothing to do with her. And now, the daughter goes against her mum’s express wishes to fight the will and get her money.

While our inheritance is our greatest act of generosity, it can also be a mighty weapon to wound others and express our anger.

Lawyers say that this kind of case will become more commonplace, as those who divorced in the 60s and 70s meet their end, and the laws on inheritance have to be applied to a person who has children from more than one wife. Perhaps the Wills & Probate lawyers will be start to hear of as much of the heartache and pain within families as those who specialise in divorce.

It’s a question worth asking: what am I saying, with my last Will and Testament? Is it a statement of generosity and love, or of anger and bitterness?


Read more like this:

Why should I leave a legacy?

How can Stewardship help with legacy giving?

Millionaire's seldom smile

Heather Tomlinson is a freelance journalist who has written for a wide number of Christian and secular publications, and on her blog.


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