High Court rejects claim for reasonable financial provision brought nine years late
How late is too late?
In the case of Sargeant v Sargeant & Anor  EWHC 8 (Ch), the High Court has ruled that a widow was not entitled to bring a claim for reasonable financial provision from her husband's Estate nearly ten years late. The claim was made against the trust assets of a discretionary trust which would ultimately benefit, amongst others, the deceased's daughter.
In my opinion, the judge's decision can be summarised as follows: for nearly ten years the beneficiaries had developed a reasonable expectation that they would inherit the trust assets and it would not be right to deprive them of that expectation which had been caused by the wife's delays to assert a claim.
Claims under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 must be brought within six months of the Grant of Probate. If they are not brought within that six month period, the Claimant will require the Court's permission to bring the claim. In considering whether to grant such permission, the Court will start by considering the six non-exhaustive considerations identified by Megarry VC in Re Salmon  Ch 167, which were summarised in Re Salmon as follows:
i) the discretion (to allow a late claim) is unfettered, and is to be exercised judicially and in accordance with what is just and proper
ii) the onus is on the claimant to establish a substantial case for the claim to proceed despite the normal rule, which Megarry VC said was "no triviality", noting that the rule was a substantive provision and not a mere procedural time limit imposed by rules of court which might be treated with indulgence
iii) it is material to consider how promptly and in what circumstances the claim has been brought outside the time limit
iv) it is material to consider whether negotiations were commenced within the time limit, or whether any delay after the expiry of the limit may be accounted for by negotiations
v) it is relevant to consider whether the estate has been distributed before a claim under the Act has been made or notified
vi) it is relevant to consider whether the claimant has any other redress, for example against advisers, if permission is refused.
Analysis – L'esprit de synthèse
The main factor behind the judge's decision to refuse the widow permission can be identified from the following extracts of the judgment:
"The reality is that Mary took her own decision to continue to work within the arrangements provided for by the will rather than to explore whether she had any option available to vary them, in the full knowledge of the financial difficulties she was under, and maintained that decision over a very long period.
Given the very extensive delay, the operative cause of which was Mary’s own failure to take any steps to explore whether she could disturb those arrangements, it would not be right to give her permission to do so now."
In other words, the beneficiaries should not be made to suffer because of the wife's failure to take any steps to explore whether she could make a claim over a very long period.
If one were cynically minded, one might also be tempted to wonder whether the belated nature of the claim might have been somewhat opportunistic given the following discrete comment in the judgement:
"The value of the estate was sworn at just over £3.2m, though the land comprising the principal assets is now said to be worth much more, Mr Mitchell submits at least £8m, as a result of outline planning permission for housing development having been granted for part of it with the prospect of similar permission on other parts."
Such a cynical view would certainly explain any sympathy the judge might have had towards the remainder beneficiaries, who I understand to have played a key role in increasing the value of the trust assets, and any lack of sympathy there might have been for the widow.