Is your will worth the paper it’s written on?

A decision in the Court of Appeal last week has raised questions about our ability to dictate who inherits our money, after judges overturned a mother’s will and awarded part of her estate to her daughter. Melita Jackson, who died in 2004 aged 70, had left her £500,000 estate to three animal charities, emphasising that the executors should “fight any claims” from her estranged daughter, Heather Ilott.

The two had fallen out decades previously after Ilott, now 54, eloped at the age of 17 to marry her boyfriend. Despite these instructions, the court found in the daughter’s favour after a decade-long legal dispute, awarding Ilott £164,000, so that she could avoid a life of “financial desperation”.

This award in favour of a grown child is the first of its kind, though there is precedent for courts overruling wills with inadequate provision for minor children. (Ilott brought her claim under the 1975 Inheritance Act, designed to protect close dependents of the deceased.)

Experts in the field said that the decision could lead to more challenges. “This ruling is saying that while you can still disinherit your children, you are going to have to explain why and show connections with those you are leaving the money to,” says Gary Rycroft, a member of the Law Society’s Wills and Equity Committee.

If so, it may move UK law closer to the rules that already operate in many other jurisdictions. England, Wales and Northern Ireland are unusual among European countries in not requiring parents to leave part of their estate to their children (some restrictions apply in Scotland).

For example, under Italian law, certain members of the family are referred to as “forced heirs”, meaning they are automatically entitled to a share of the deceased’s assets. There is a similar requirement in Germany, known as Pflichtteil, under which the testator is entitled to name the heirs of their choice, but designated family members are entitled to inherit half of what they would have received if there was no will.

French inheritance law goes even further, setting out specific proportions of your estate that are ring-fenced for your children: half if you have one child, two-thirds if you have two, and so on. The remainder (known as la quotité disponible) can be disposed of as you wish.

Some people are shocked to discover these laws can apply even if they are a UK resident. For example, a holiday home in France owned by a British citizen may have to be passed on in accordance with French rules.

New EU regulations that come into effect on 17 August 2015 will allow a citizen of one country who is resident in another to decide which set of national laws will govern their entire estate, with the default being those of the country in which they are resident. In some cases this may potentially avoid forced heirship issues for those who die after this date, but could also create complications of its own.