Court allows Widow to cut stepdaughter out of her will in the recent case of Shapton v Seviour
The Deceased, Colin Seviour, died in August 2016 leaving his estate of approximately £268,000 to his wife, Maria Seviour, who survived him. Their marriage was a second marriage for both of them with them both having two children from their previous marriage. It was understood that both the Deceased and Maria had intended that on the surviving spouse death, their estate would pass equally between their four children. However, after inheriting the entirety of the Deceased’s estate Maria fell out with Colin’s children after his death and decided to make a new Will excluding his children.
One of the Deceased’s children, Carly (32), brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants Act) 1975 asserting that she required reasonable financial provision to the sum of £237,000 (later reduced to £75,000 in opening at trial) from her father’s estate. Carly, sought to argue that she required the financial provision to enable her to buy a new home to accommodate her and her family. This included a home big enough to allow her children separate bedrooms and her husband a home office.
Maria defended the claim by asserting that Carly already enjoyed an affluent and comfortable life and that she did not required reasonable financial provision for her maintenance. Maria on the other hand had lost her husband to brain cancer, had then been diagnosed with motor neurone disease and had to give up her job in the NHS which meant that she was reliant on state benefits.
It has been historically difficult for an adult child to succeed in bringing a claim under this Act, the law respects testamentary freedom and will not divert from such if the adult child is fit and healthy, financially independent and capable of earning a living. The Courts may however seek to divert from the testator’s wishes, in the cases of adult children, if the claimant is in financial need or there is some other reason which would make it unconscionable for provision not to be made for them.
Before reaching trial Maria offered Carly to ‘drop hands’ and essentially walk away from her claim, on two occasions, yet she declined. At trial the Court dismissed Carly’s claim for provision of £75,000 from her father’s estate and commented that the claim was ‘absolutely hopeless’. The Court noted that Carly and her family were relatively financially stable, despite their £20,000 credit card debt which the court held to be ‘self inflicted’ and that they otherwise lived a ‘comfortable life’.
In addition to being unsuccessful in her Claim, the Court also ordered Carly to pay the legal costs for the case which were estimated at £50,000. In the context of this type of litigation, these costs are low, primarily due to Maria’s lawyer’s acting on a pro bono basis, but they nonetheless act as a reminder of the importance of trying to avoid litigation by early settlement.
This case has caused some debate in the contentious probate world, where parties are heavily encouraged to enter into alternative dispute resolution to try to resolve matters without proceeding to Court, yet the strong words of the court that this case was ‘absolutely hopeless’ brings into question whether cases of no merit are being settled to simply try to avoid costly litigation.
The case also comes as a reminder of the importance to ensure testator’s consider all possible outcomes from the way in which they have decided to leave their estate. In particular, in cases such as this where there has been a second marriage, with children from the first marriage, it is important to consider the risk that after the first spouses death the surviving spouse may change their Will to reduce or completely disinherit the step children.