Should we ban harmful bequests?

Image of two donkeys, both wearing saddles and a turquoise-coloured harness with the names Dixie and Noddy above their noses, on a sandy beach.This week, a woman who had been cut out of her late mother’s will in favour of three animal welfare charities lost her legal battle to claim a large share of the estate. The Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeal ruling that Heather Ilott, in her 50s with five children, should be entitled to some £160,000 of the estate which is worth around £500K such that she could purchase a house; this ruling reinstates a County Court ruling that she should receive only around £50K. The mother, Melita Jackson, had severed ties with her daughter when she left home to be with her boyfriend, whom she later married and to whom she remains married; attempts to reconcile the pair all failed, with both blaming the other. There is a longer article on the legal aspects of the case, written after the 2015 Court of Appeal ruling, here.

The reports do not state the reason why Melita Jackson disapproved of her daughter’s fiancé, Nicholas Ilott, although some reports suggest that the “final straw” was Mrs Ilott’s decision to give one of her daughters the same name as her mother’s sister-in-law, whom she disliked. None of them give information on who Nicholas Ilott is (there are a photographer and an Oxford scientist by that name, although the latter is clearly too young to be Mrs Ilott’s husband), but they do say that his work brought in little income (his former line of work is no longer available to him because of a back problem [PDF]), that at the time of Jackson’s death and the subsequent legal claims they were dependant on state benefits, that the house they lived in was owned by a housing association and that Heather Ilott had no pension. Melita Jackson had never even supported the three charities she named in the will, but left her money to them out of spite. Of course, the five grandchildren, who were not born when the dispute began, also lose out from this decision.

I’m a Muslim and in Islamic law, you cannot simply disinherit a child; there are fixed shares and although they are not equal, nobody closely related to the deceased is left out. You can only bequeath up to a third of your estate to people outside the group entitled to benefit from estate division, including charities. There is also a hadeeth (a saying of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) that if someone lived a righteous life for 60 years but behaved unjustly when leaving their will, they would be consigned to the Fire (there are two versions, one also mentioning a woman who does the same). While I don’t suggest that Islamic law on this subject should be adopted lock, stock and barrel in Britain right now, some aspects of it could be adopted to end injustices like this case.

I believe it should not be allowed to disinherit a child altogether without good reason, such as that the child caused injury or damage to their parents, rather than mere disapproval of their lifestyle or life choices or that their behaviour caused injury to another heir resulting in permanent disability. There are other circumstances which might allow that the heir not inherit major assets, such as a business or country estate, on the grounds that their lifestyle (or lack of interest or prior involvement) might mean they were not competent to run it, but these do not justify disinheriting them entirely. And I believe that charities should not be able to receive most of an estate while the children of the deceased are dependent on state benefits.

While at present, an heir can challenge a will if they believe that the testator (the person whose will it is) had not in fact written it, or had been manipulated into doing so while lacking mental capacity, they cannot challenge a will on the basis of simple injustice, spite or caprice on the part of the testator. This should change. We should not be seeing people left in poverty because their parents took exception to the person they loved, much less innocent grandchildren punished for the behaviour of a parent years ago; charities, especially those that do not work for the betterment of people, should not receive legacies intended as insults while the state remains responsible for the upkeep of those left out. Such displays of sheer spite should be ended.

Image source: Wikipedia, contributed by SleafordSue under the GNU Free Documentation Licence.

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