Lauren Day
Partner, Solicitor & Head of Dispute Resolution
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Date Published:07 Nov 2016 Last Updated:28 Jul 2021

Inheritance Act Claim: Husband/Wife/Civil Partner

Dispute Resolution

Building upon the general overview set out within my first blog (Inheritance Act Claim: An Overview), this article explores the relevant considerations for bringing or defending an inheritance claim by a spouse or civil partner.

Key Questions

The first question to determine in any inheritance claim is whether the deceased was domiciled in England and Wales. It is outside the scope of this blog to explain fully what is meant by the expression ‘domiciled’ – it can, in certain circumstances, be a technical and difficult question to answer. Generally speaking though, if someone spends the majority of their time and owns the majority of their assets in England and Wales, they will be domiciled here.

The second question, which is relevant to all categories of claimant, is whether the Will or intestacy has made reasonable financial provision for them. In the case of a spouse or civil partner the meaning of reasonable financial provision is different to all other cases. For spouses or civil partners, the Court will consider what is reasonable in all the circumstances and an award can be made whether the funds are required for that person’s maintenance or not.

Key Factors

What the court in fact does in practice to answer this question is to apply a similar test to that used in divorce proceedings, the starting position being a 50/50 split of all capital assets (White v White [2001] 1 AC 596). It must however be remembered that this is only one factor.

There are eight specific matters which the court is obliged to consider:

a) Financial circumstances of the person bringing the claim
b) Financial circumstances of any other potential applicant
c) Financial circumstances of the beneficiaries of the estate under the Will or intestacy
d) Any obligations or responsibilities the deceased had to the applicant or beneficiary
e) Size and nature of the estate
f) Any physical or mental disability of the applicant or other beneficiary
g) Any other matter, including conduct

The following factors are specifically relevant to claims made by a spouse or civil partner:

h) Age of the applicant and duration of the marriage
i) Contribution made by the applicant to the welfare of the family of the deceased, including looking after the home or caring for family members
j) What the applicant would have received had they got divorced on the date of death

As can be seen from the above, judges are required to adopt a holistic approach when deciding inheritance claims. Each case turns on its own facts. It is necessary to look at the bigger picture, consider all those involved, what their expectations were, their respective needs, standard of living and lifestyle. What is required for one person to maintain their lifestyle may be a luxury to another.

Whilst at first glance, and to those who are not specialist practitioners in this area, it can appear that unless a spouse or civil partner has received at least half of the net estate they will have a valid claim. That is not necessarily the case. Any claim must be carefully appraised especially where there are other beneficiaries with need, the marriage was short, or the estate is modest.

The relationship need not be happy

Interestingly, the courts have made it clear that it is not necessary for the marriage to be a happy one in order for a claimant spouse or civil partner to succeed. The most notorious example of a successful application from an unhappy relationship was in the case Re Snoek (1983). The first 10 years of this relationship were relatively happy; there were three children from the marriage. However for the next 15 or so years the relationship had been very strained and indeed it was found that the applicant wife had been violent and entirely unpleasant to the deceased. With some hesitation the judge decided that the wife’s conduct at the end of the marriage did not quite outweigh the contribution she had made at the beginning. She received a small award.

If you wish to discuss any of the issues arising from this blog please feel free to contact me at lauren.day@ellisjones.co.uk or DD : 01202 057760.