Appeal allows claim against husband’s estate 17 months out of time

01 Aug 2019

The High Court has overturned a decision barring a widow from bringing a claim against her late husband’s estate because the time limit for doing so had passed. Mrs Cowan sought to make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (“the Act”) against her husband’s estate on the basis that it did not make ‘reasonable provision’ for her. A claim that must be brought within six months of the date of Grant of Probate, unless the Court’s permission to bring the claim out of time has been obtained.

Michael Cowan, a very successful businessman and multimillionaire, died in April 2016. Two months before his death he married his lover of over 25 years.  Mr Cowan left a will setting up trust funds to meet Mrs Cowan’s needs for the rest of her life. Under those trust funds, Mrs Cowan is said to have received around £435,000 in the first year and now receives regular monthly payments, thought to be worth approximately £240,000 a year. 

Whilst Mrs Cowan receives substantial sums, she was left with no control over the assets as they remained in trust rather than in her own name. Mrs Cowan sought to make her claim 19 months after her husband’s death (13 months too late) and therefore sought the Court’s permission to bring the claim. 

Mr Justice Mostyn originally ruled that Mrs Cowan should not be allowed to bring the claim out of time as she had no good reason for the delay. He also criticised the use of “stand-still agreements” in general, typically used by parties to extend the time limit for bringing a claim. They are often used in circumstances where the parties believe that the claim is likely to be settled but need more time than the six month deadline and want to avoid the legal costs associated with issuing and defending proceedings. 

Mr Justice Mostyn’s decision came around the same time that an applicant was given permission to bring a claim under the same Act 25 years after the deadline for doing so had passed. 

Mrs Cowan appealed the decision and Lady Justice Asplin overturned Mr Justice Mostyn’s decision on the basis that his reasoning distracted from the real question of whether it was arguable that reasonable financial provision had been made for Mrs Cowan. She went on to say that the time limit was not intended to have a disciplinary element and appeared to endorse the use of “stand-still” agreements. 

Lady Justice Asplin’s decision gives welcome clarity and a sensible approach to claims under the 1975 Act where the deadline for bringing claims is relatively short. Her endorsement of “standstill agreements” is  likely to be applauded by Claimants where they are often forced into the costs of issuing court proceedings within six months of the date of grant of probate just to protect their position. 

If you have any further enquires in realtion to this article please contact Cathryn Culverhouse, Solicitor in our DMH Stallard Dispute Resolution Department 

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