The Legacy of a Letter

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This is a post about an Inheritance Act 1975 claim by an adult child; but it is also a poignant human story about a family feud, about a daughter’s letter sent in wrath, and a mother’s letter that was written but never sent. Those letters came, four years after the deceased’s death (and over a decade after the letters themselves were written) to determine the outcome of the claim.

Dolores Del Rio with her mother on the steps of a train, holding a bouquet of roses, ca. 1929-1932. From the University of Washington Coillection on Flickr Commons.

Dolores Del Rio with her mother on the steps of a train, holding a bouquet of roses, ca. 1929-1932. From the University of Washington Coillection on Flickr Commons.

Claims by adult children under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 used to be relatively rare and there was for some time an argument abroad that these claimants, particularly if they were financially independent of the deceased and/or were able to work, had a “heavy burden” in convincing the Court that reasonable provision had not been made for them. More recently, and certainly from 1999 onwards when Espinosa v Bourke [1999] 1 FLR 747 was decided, there has been a more open approach. That said, most successful adult child claimants have been able to demonstrate either a financial dependency, or a serious financial need even where they are in employment.

The real difficulties often arise when either or both of these factors are combined with a significant, and often acrimonious, family feud which has resulted in the son or daughter [for convenience, and because the Wright case involved a daughter, I will refer only to “daughter” in future, but sons are of course included] being excluded from the parent’s Will. In fact, the two most interesting 1975 Act adult child cases this year, Ilott v Mitson and Wright v Waters, have both taken place against a background of irreconcilable family differences, though with rather different causes and different results.

The first question for the Court is not whether the person who made the will was being “reasonable” in the sense of recognising a general/moral obligation to leave money within the family: testatrices are still able to, and still do, leave all their worldly goods to the donkey sanctuary if they so choose. The only litigable question is whether the provision under the Will (including where there is no provision at all) is reasonably sufficient for the claimant’s maintenance. Making that decision involves considering all of the relevant facts under section 3(1) of the 1975 Act, which I’ll discuss in a moment. 

It’s worth noting however that

“”reasonableness” ought not to introduce concepts of morality, or subjective judgment, apart to the extent to which such concepts may emerge from the application of the evidence … eg relevant conduct … “ [Andrew Francis QC, Inheritance Act Claims: Law and Practice para 6[6] and footnote 3].

Wright explores just this point: when does the conduct of the claimant become so important that it is indeed reasonable that the deceased left her nothing under the Will?

The Deceased was Mary Waters, and the Claimant on her estate was her daughter, Patricia Wright. Mary Waters had left all of her estate (subject to a number of small bequests) to her son, David Waters. She left  nothing to Patricia and wrote a letter giving her reasons. Patricia challenged the Will on the twin bases of proprietary estoppel and the 1975 Act. In the event, the Judge either rejected or made no findings on most of the proprietary estoppel case.

The quarrel between mother and daughter had its roots in a sum of £10,000 which (the Judge found) had been passed by mother to daughter in about 1998. It was David’s case, supported as we shall see by some roughly contemporaneous documents written by the deceased, that Patricia was to invest this money on her mother’s behalf. Patricia Wright contended that the money had been a gift to her. Quite what happened between the two women is not entirely clear, but Mary Waters certainly regarded the money as hers and appears to have asked, or tried to ask, Patricia Wright to return it.

Mrs C S Whitman and her daughter Olive Whitman, from the Library of Congress collection on Flickr Commons

Mrs C S Whitman and her daughter Olive Whitman, from the Library of Congress collection on Flickr Commons.

By 2001 the quarrel had become exceedingly bitter, marked by those small episodes that seem so trivial, but mean so much inside families: Mrs Waters was not invited to a family wedding, Christmas presents may not have been sent to the grandchildren. In October 2001 Patricia Wright wrote a particularly bitter letter to Mrs Waters which included the words, “As far as I am concerned I no longer have a mother, you are not fit to call yourself that,” and added that she did not wish to communicate with Mrs Waters in the future. Apart from one further short telephone call, Mrs Wright and Mrs Waters never spoke to each other again.

Mrs Waters did, however, at around the time that she received this letter, put down on paper some notes recording her version of events concerning the £10,000 and making it crystal clear that she considered that the money was hers and not Mrs Wright’s. The Judge remarked that these notes may have been written in preparation for a reply to Mrs Wright’s letter of October 2001, but in the event no reply was sent and the notes were not discovered until after Mrs Waters had died. He considered that their near-contemporaneity with the dispute gave them considerable value as evidence.

Mrs Waters executed her last Will in September 2009. She gave her reasons in her accompanying letter, which included the statement that Mrs Wright had “already taken without my consent £10,000 of my savings” and that there had been no contact between them for almost 9 years. The following year, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Patricia Wright was told of the diagnosis by another family member, but neither Mrs Wright nor Mrs Waters contacted the other before Mrs Waters died in December 2010.

HHJ Behrens considered the factors in section 3(1) of the 1975 Act. There was little doubt that Patricia Wright was in poor health and that her financial situation was also difficult: her entire income came from benefits. Mr Waters, on the other hand, seemed to have no particularly relevant financial needs or obligations. The Judge then considered the question of whether or not Mrs Waters had a moral obligation to leave something to Mrs Wright because of various detriments alleged by Mrs Wright, including unpaid work that Mrs Wright had carried out in the family shop. This is an area in which 1975 Act cases cross over to some extent with claims in proprietary estoppel, and the learned Judge referred to Re Pearce Deceased [1998] EWCA Civ 1097, in which both claims had been made. In Re Pearce, Nourse LJ had opined that a moral obligation can be discharged by subsequent conduct.

After noting that there were significant section 3(1) factors in her favour, Judge Behrens considered Mrs Wright’s conduct, including: the £10,000 which he found that she had invested for her mother and refused to return; her letters to her mother including the letter of October 2001; and her failure to contact her mother in any way after 2001. He added “in assessing this conduct the Court can take into account its effect on her mother as demonstrated in the letter … which was placed with her Will”. He also took into account Mrs Waters’ draft letter of about October 2001.

Woman and her daughter, 1926; photograh by Elmer S Riggs taken on the 2nd Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expedition in Catamarca, Argentina. From the Field Library Collection on Flickr Commons.

Woman and her daughter, 1926; photograh by Elmer S Riggs taken on the 2nd Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expedition in Catamarca, Argentina. From the Field Library Collection on Flickr Commons.

Discounting the excuse that Mrs Wright’s letter had been written at a time of very significant stress (her husband had been mortally ill at the time), the Judge said that in his view that did not “begin to justify” the letter: “the language … can only be described as extreme … she formally disowned Mary Waters as a mother stating she was not fit to call herself that. She concluded by wishing her dead … [she] had plenty of opportunity to retract it … She chose not to do so. Instead they did not communicate for 9 years … When I take into account all the section 3 factors my value judgment is that Patricia Wright’s conduct outweighs all of the factors in her favour” [paras 99 – 100].

This is one of the very few I(PFD)A 1975 cases in which conduct has had a predominant role, and it may be that it will be subject to appeal for that reason: we shall have to wait and see. It does however demonstrate the devastating effect on a claimant’s case of cutting the deceased out of her life in acrimonious circumstances and then failing to conciliate in the subsequent years. There must certainly be a strong argument that, if the Claimant has deliberately and sustainedly excised the deceased from her life without any reconciliation between them, including a statement that she no longer considers her a parent, her rights as a child under the 1975 Act as a child must be substantially weakened. That does not make the story as a whole any less sad.