Time Limits for Claims under the Inheritance Act 1975
The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 allows certain close relatives to bring a claim against a deceased person’s estate if they believe that the deceased did not make reasonable financial provision for them in their Will.
Any claim must be made within six months of a Grant of Probate being issued. If a claim is to be brought outside of the time limit, then permission must be granted by the court. Parties to a claim can, however, enter into a standstill agreement, effectively agreeing between themselves to suspend time for the commencement of any claim for limitation purposes. This allows the parties time to consider matters, negotiate and attempt to settle without the need for litigation.
Cowan v Foreman (2019)
In the recent case of Cowan v Foreman, the efficacy of standstill agreements was brought into question. The case concerned a claim brought by Mary Cowan against the estate of her late husband, Michael Cowan. Mr Cowan was a very successful businessman and at the date of his death his estate was worth in the region of £29 million.
Mr Cowan’s Will left much of his estate on a discretionary trust for various beneficiaries, including Mrs Cowan. Mrs Cowan made a claim on the basis that despite receiving a generous income, she was left with no assets in her name and no control over her late husband’s fortune.
The Grant of Probate was issued on 16 December 2016 which meant that any claim should ordinarily be commenced by 16 June 2017. Mrs Cowan’s claim was not issued until 12 November 2018, approximately 17 months late. However, prior to the issuing of the claim, negotiations had taken place with the trustees of Mr Cowan’s estate and the parties had entered into a standstill agreement
High Court Decision
Justice Mostyn refused permission for Mrs Cowan to commence proceedings out of time. He was not satisfied that the claim had strong prospects of success at trial because the trust set up for Mrs Cowan provided her with a generous income. He also found that no proper explanation had been given for the delay in issuing the claim. Justice Mostyn expressed concern over the use of standstill agreements and suggested their use should come to an immediate end.
Court of Appeal Decision
Mrs Cowan appealed the decision and the Court of Appeal held in her favour. It was confirmed that standstill agreements do still have a place in 1975 Act claims, subject to certain provisions. The Court found that each case should be considered on its own merits in analysing the reasons for delay. The Court also found that reasonable financial provision had not been made for Mrs Cowan as she did not have any security or a direct interest in Mr Cowan’s estate.
It is important to note that whilst standstill agreements will often be appropriate tools to assist an out of court settlement, they do not provide absolute certainty. Each case is fact specific and a claimant therefore still takes a risk if negotiations are unsuccessful and a claim is issued out of time.
Longmores have specialist teams who can deal with all of the issues raised above, from protecting (as far as possible) against disputes arising in the first place, by careful succession planning, to resolving disputes once they have arisen.
For advice about challenging a will, contact our Dispute Resolution team
Please note the contents of this blog are given for information only and must not be relied upon. Legal advice should always be sought in relation to specific circumstances.