Understanding no-contest clauses in light of the Inheritance Act 1975

In the realm of estate planning, one often encounters the delicate balance between a testator’s intentions and the rights of potential beneficiaries, especially given the existence of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (Inheritance Act).

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The Inheritance Act allows certain categories of individuals to make claims against an estate if they believe that reasonable financial provision has not been made for them in a deceased’s Will. These categories include spouses, children, cohabitees, and others who were financially dependent on the deceased. While allowing potential beneficiaries to challenge a Will under certain circumstances ensures that the testator’s wishes are not executed in a manner that is unjust or unfair, it arguably restricts a person’s testamentary freedom.

One option is for a testator to include a no-contest clause in their Will. Typically, these clauses stipulate that if a beneficiary challenges the validity of the Will or seeks additional provision under the Inheritance Act, they risk forfeiting their inheritance entirely or receiving a reduced share. The rationale behind such clauses is twofold. Firstly, they serve to uphold the testator’s wishes by minimising disputes and ensuring that the distribution of assets proceeds according to their instructions. Secondly, by acting as a deterrent against bringing a claim under the Inheritance Act, they aim to protect the estate from unnecessary litigation expenses and protracted legal battles, thereby preserving its value for the intended beneficiaries.

No-contest clauses in light of the Inheritance Act have been recently considered in the case of Sim v Pimlott & Ors. Dr Sim and his wife, Mrs Sim, were married for 19 years and together for a total of 35 years. The relationship was turbulent; Mrs Sim had accused her husband of domestic and sexual abuse and had sought legal protection orders against him. Given this context, Dr Sim was keen to leave Mrs Sim very little in his Will. Dr Sim was advised by his solicitor, however, that should he not make reasonable financial provision for his wife in his Will,  she may bring a claim against his estate under the Inheritance Act. 

In an attempt to avoid such a claim, Dr Sim left his wife a cash sum of £250,000, a gift of £125,000, on the proviso that Mrs Sim release her interest from a property in Dubai, and a life interest in the residue of the estate in his Will. The cash gifts were drafted as no- contest clauses. Despite this, upon Dr Sim’s death, Mrs Sim still brought a claim against his estate under the Inheritance Act, arguing that the Will did not adequately provide for her. 

The court was asked to consider: whether Dr Sim’s Will did reasonably provide for Mrs Sim financially; whether the inclusion of a no-contest clause was reasonable; and whether a person can argue that a Will has failed to make a reasonable financial provision despite the inclusion of an effective no-contest clause.

The court found that Dr Sim had adequately provided for his wife in his Will and that therefore, it was reasonable of him to have included a no-contest clause. Due to this, the judge held that Mrs Sim had now lost her entitlement to the cash legacies left to her by her late husband.   

Poignantly, this meant that Mrs Sim was no longer reasonably provided for financially. However, the judge held that it would be unjust for a person to bring a claim under the Inheritance Act, knowingly forgoing a benefit, only to argue afterward that the Will does not adequately provide for them due to this forfeiture. Considering this, Mrs Sim was not able to argue that as she was no longer receiving the cash gifts, her late husband’s Will did not adequately provide for her.   

The ruling in Sim v Pimlott & Ors reaffirms the importance of weighing up the potential benefits to contesting a will against the risks involved, especially where a no-contest clause is included in an objectively rational Will. The case also highlights that, on the drafting of a Will, careful consideration must be had to the appropriateness of a no-contest clause, ensuring it strikes a balance: not set too low, which could still result in a successful Inheritance Act claim, nor set too high, as it would partially undermine the testator’s intentions.

Whether you are weighing up the decision to include a no-contest clause in your Will, or you are a beneficiary considering challenging a Will, our dedicated Wills, Trust and Estate Disputes team has the expertise and experience to guide you through the process.

Please get in touch with our team of specialist solicitors who can provide tailored legal advice to suit your individual needs.

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In the realm of estate planning, one often encounters the delicate balance between a testator's intentions and the rights of potential beneficiaries, especially given the existence of the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (Inheritance Act).

Understanding no-contest clauses in light of the Inheritance Act 1975

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