Under the Inheritance Act (Provision for Family and Dependants) 1975, any claim must be brought within six months of the date of issue of the Grant of Probate or Grant of Letters of Administration respectively. Given that such a short time frame is imposed upon applicants, a trend has developed whereby parties agree to “stop the clock” on proceedings, to allow sufficient time for negotiations and/or to formulate the basis of a claim.
Not only does this enable matters to be settled without the involvement of the court, it minimises costs all round. However, the recent case of Cowan v Foreman and others  EWHC 349 (Fam) highlights the court’s reluctance to observe standstill agreements, on the grounds that it is not for the parties to give away time that otherwise belongs to the court and “cock[s] a snook at the clear Parliamentary intention”.
In Cowan v Foreman, Mrs Cowan (the Claimant) was the principal beneficiary of her deceased husband’s estate, worth approximately £16 million. In his will, the Deceased had set up two trusts, one to provide for his children and grandchildren and the other to provide for the reasonable needs of his wife. Mrs Cowan was the beneficiary of both trusts, with a life interest in the latter. Despite these provisions, Mrs Cowan wished to make a claim under the Inheritance Act on the basis that the Deceased’s will did not adequately provide for her. An application under section 4 of the Act was made on 8 November 2018; seventeen months after the six month limitation period had expired. Although the parties had agreed a standstill for the period up until May 2018, the application was refused and Mrs Cowan was denied permission to continue her claim. Mostyn J stated that the practice of standstill agreements should “come to an immediate end” and urged judges to take a “robust approach” to applications such as this one.
It is understood that permission to appeal has been sought by Mrs Cowan. If the decision stands then the only safe course is for a claimant to issue a claim under the IA within the six month time limit. This will inevitably result in the claimant incurring significant expenditure up-front, by drafting their claim, gathering evidence, issuing proceedings and potentially making an application for a stay, even for disputes that may ultimately be resolved amicably. However, for the foreseeable future, this may be a burden that potential claimants have to bear to avoid the risk of their claim being struck out if issued outside of the six month time period.
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