23 March 2018
Mr and Mrs Beckett married in 1958. They had two sons but later separated. Mr Beckett, who owned and farmed around 222 acres of land in County Antrim, began cohabiting with a Ms Herd and lived with her until his death in 1996. His Will left everything to Ms Herd. Mrs Beckett applied under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Order (NI) 1979 (broadly similar to the English 1975 Act) for reasonable provision for herself and her second son. The first son did not take part as he had established reasonably good relations with Ms Herd and continued to farm some of the land with her.
Extensive negotiations ensued between the parties, which lasted 10 years, and culminated in an amicable agreement which effectively allowed the second son the sum of £280,000 (with no interest) to be paid in 120 consecutive monthly instalments. However, Ms Herd did not honour her part of the agreement and did not pay any instalments. The second son then issued proceedings against his brother and Ms Herd, and obtained judgment in the sum previously agreed, plus interest at 5%. Mrs Beckett then applied for reasonable provision for herself as an extension of her earlier claim under the Inheritance Order. The Judge stated that in order to allow her to continue proceedings so far out of time, he would need to be satisfied on two counts: first that the delay was not unreasonable, and secondly, that it was not a potential abuse of process to allow the claim to be renewed in this way.
The Judge decided that there was fair reason for the delay; that being that the parties had sought to reach a settlement through protracted discussions. Since the courts have long supported the resolution of disputes between parties outside the courtroom, the court was willing to accept this excuse for delay. After settlement was reached there was further delay, however the court was satisfied that the reason for this was that the mother and the second son believed that the agreed payments would be forthcoming from Ms Herd. The fact that Ms Herd had acted in bad faith in refusing to make the payments was also a factor here, as was the fact that since Mr Beckett's death she had run up substantial debts against the state. The court stated that Mrs Beckett was just within the limits of what constituted a reasonable delay.
The court held that whilst it was unusual for a claimant to be able to continue a claim for reasonable provision under the Inheritance Order after the estate had been distributed, it was not impossible, as anyone who held property as a beneficiary of the estate could be ordered to transfer some or all of that property by the court. The court therefore allowed the claim to continue.
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