Judge’s Inheritance Act warning ‘could lead to influx of claims against estates’

The recent decision by a leading family law High Court judge who refused permission to a widow attempting to contest her husband’s will serves as a stark reminder about the time constraints on Inheritance Act claims.

Once probate is granted, people have just six months to make claims against an estate if they think they are entitled to additional provision from it, but sometimes those who pass the deadline are looked upon favourably by a judge and are still able to file an Inheritance Act claim.

However, in the recent Cowan v Foreman & Ors case, Mr Justice Mostyn ruled that the widow in question was nearly 17 months too late and there were not enough exceptional factors for him to overlook the legislation.

He also commented on the ‘standstill agreement’ between two negotiating parties, often used to effectively buy more time, but Mr Justice Mostyn ruled that the practice of entering into such agreements ought to come to an immediate end, as the parties should not be able to change the time limits by giving away ‘time that belongs to the Court’. His clear message was that such standstill agreements should not be used to extend time in cases such as this.  Instead the parties should issue a claim at Court within six months, even if they subsequently seek to put those proceedings on hold in order to negotiate.

This recent case sets a precedent and shows the limitations of claims under the Inheritance Act, sending a very clear message to those who are considering applying for such delays to act as soon as possible.

Many people who delay seeking legal advice find, to their detriment, that they are simply too late to do anything about it, so I would urge them to at least enquire when the slightest question mark arises over the contents of somebody’s will, or if they have been left disappointed by a loved one who has not made a will..

It is also interesting that the judge in this case seems to be on the one hand encouraging people to take a case to Court, yet also warns would-be claimants against wasting Court time by burdening them with “stale claims”.

As a result of this decision, I expect to see a huge increase in the number of Inheritance Act claims being issued as people avoid negotiating and go straight to Court, fearing that any talks and attempts at settlement could push them past the six-month window.

This will likely result in more claims having to be issued, even where it is likely that settlements could have been reached without the need for Court proceedings, purely on the basis that it would take longer to debate the claim and finalise a settlement than the six months within which parties currently have to bring a claim.  In my mind, this unnecessarily increases costs for the claiming party and is surprising given the Court’s usual approach to encouraging parties to try and settle disputes, and only issue proceedings as a last resort.

By Alison Parry, partner at JMW.co.uk


Kindly shared by JMW Solicitors