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Supreme Court legacy ruling: leaving a gift to charity can be egoistic as well as altruistic

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Supreme Court legacy ruling: leaving a gift to charity can be egoistic as well as altruistic

After a litigation saga lasting almost ten years, the UK Supreme Court has ruled that a woman who was deliberately disinherited by her mother in favour of three animal charities is entitled only to a relatively small pay-out. The daughter, Heather Ilott, had contested the will in search of a maintenance payment. The ruling is a victory for charities reliant on legacy gifts in donors’ wills, and could discourage adult children from contesting wills in the future.

The case is a sad one, caused by the long estrangement of the now-deceased Melita Jackson and her daughter. Aged 17, her daughter left home for a man that her mother disliked, and after decades of cold relations, Jackson attempted to leave her child with nothing.

The mother’s will left almost all of her £486,000 estate to three animal charities: The Blue Cross, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Birds, and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals.

Through litigation, the daughter attempted to carve out some of the money for herself. At one point in legal history, no court would have thought to entertain her. Historically, it was a well-established legal principle that you can leave property to anyone you like, and equally, disinherit anyone you like.

Heather Ilott leaving the Supreme Court in December 2016. Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

In its ruling on the Ilott v The Blue Cross case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Court of Appeal had been wrong to award Ilott £143,000, plus extra instalments to a value of £20,000. Instead, it said she should only receive the original pay-out of £50,000 decided by a District Court – a victory for the charities.

While this remains an outcome that the mother is likely to have disapproved of, the reduced pay-out could discourage family members from contesting wills that they do not like.

Thanks to the intervention of parliament, spouses, civil partners, children and dependants have long been able to make a claim for financial provision, even where they have been deliberately overlooked. But the novelty of the Ilott v The Blue Cross case was that Jackson’s daughter was both an adult and able to provide for herself financially. Previous courts had always been extraordinarily wary of awarding money to independent adult children. The court’s restrictive decision means that legacy-dependent charities can relax a little and are unlikely to face a flood of cases of family members contesting wills – which a ruling the other way could have encouraged.

For what motive?

The case throws the nature of donor choice into a sharp relief, showing that every testamentary gift to charity links to another decision to exclude relatives, friends and loved-ones. That decision can be a painful one, bruising the most tender feelings and leaving people out of pocket. Gifts are sometimes made in the most uncharitable circumstances.

The mainstream view among researchers of gift-giving is derived from economics, which casts donors as either “altruist” or “egoist”.

The altruistic motivation is the most intuitive – it matches our ordinary understanding of charity. Altruist donors are understood to be driven by the provision of material assistance to others. In short, they derive happiness from the consumption of other people. So altruists like to see the difference their gifts make. They are motivated by change in the world.

This altruistic frame does not fit Jackson’s gift. The judges noted that she had little connection with the charities. And while the gift shows an affection for animals, the fraught facts of the case point to non-altruistic motivations in play.

But was it egoistic – and made without any intention to actually benefit the charities? Egoistic donors are said to be motivated by the consumption of a hedonistic pleasure, or a feeling of glow. Although we do not readily link charity and egoism, it can be felt in the buzz we might get from playing a charitable lottery, from flaunting wealth at a charitable auction, or from assuaging guilt through a donation.

The theory might be relevant to this case, too, as Jackson might have been motivated by egoism rather than concern for the charities themselves. In the complex emotional circumstances of family estrangement, we are not always motivated by the best of feelings.

Regardless of the motivation of donors, charities are receiving more money left to them in legacies. In 2015, charities with income over £500,000 received £2.3 billion in legacies. The decision in the Ilott v The Blue Cross case means that legacies will likely keep flowing into charity coffers for a while yet.