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English widow is too late to make 1975 Act claim on farmer's estate

Thursday, 11 January, 2018

A Northampton farmer's widow has been refused permission to make a time-barred claim for reasonable provision from her late husband's estate, more than ten years after grant of probate was issued.

Joe Sargeant died in May 2005. There was no dispute over his will, which left almost all his estate to a discretionary family trust, of which his wife Mary and daughter Jane were named as beneficiaries.

The estate consisted mostly of farmland, originally farmed by a partnership including other family members, but more recently by Joe Sargeant alone. Though valued at GBP3.2 million at the time, it is now said to be worth about GBP8 million, because a considerable amount of the farmland has been granted planning permission to be developed into housing.

Mary Sargeant's claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 appears to have been prompted by a dispute with her daughter Jane regarding ownership of this land (which had already been the subject of litigation years before). Jane contends that the land was owned by the farming partnership, and thus passed to her by succession, outside the will. Mary, who says she is now in financial difficulties, disputes this, and claims the land was part of her late husband's personal estate. She told the court that she intends to bring claims to this effect, along with an application to set aside Jane's original partnership agreement with her father, and to remove her as her father's executor. Mary would, however, drop these claims if her reasonable provision claim was allowed.

The difficulty was that the Act imposes on claimants a deadline of six months after probate, which was granted on Joe Sargeant's will in 2006. As a consequence, Mary Sargeant had first to obtain permission to bring the action many years out of time, on the basis that she did not understand the financial implications of her position as a discretionary beneficiary.

The England and Wales High Court has, however, rejected her request. 'This is not a case in which any material facts have been concealed from Mary at any stage, or where she has been misled by Jane or the trustees', said Cooke HHJ. 'Nor is it a case in which the claim is been made necessary by any supervening event outside Mary's control ... I reject also any suggestion that the delay in bringing the claim has been occasioned by Mary placing reliance on generalised statements that she says her husband made to her before his death along the lines of "you will be a wealthy woman after I die".'

'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', remarked the judge. He duly refused permission to bring the claim out of time, in the knowledge that Mary Sargeant may ‘seek to pursue the additional claims that have been floated in these proceedings’ (Sargeant v Sargeant, 2018 EWHC 8 Ch).