Lawyers are calling for clarification in the wake of two recent rulings under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

In the case of Cowan v Foreman a widow was refused permission to claim against the estate of her late husband, after she filed her application 17 months after the deadline had passed.

The claimant argued that she had not understood the structure of a will and was not aware that, under the Act, applications were subject to a six-month time limit.

Sitting in the High Court family division, Mr Justice Mostyn stated that, in the absence of exceptional factors, the limit of excusable delay should be ‘measured in weeks, or at most a few months’.

He also took aim at ‘standstill agreements’, arranged between lawyers to allow for an extension to this time limit, stating it was up to the court to decide on acceptable time periods in an inheritance claim.

The claimant’s lawyers have now sought permission to appeal, reports the Law Society Gazette.

Conversely, in the recent case of Bhusate v Patel & Others permission was granted to bring a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, despite it being made more than 25 years after the time limit.

In this case, Chief Master Marsh ruled there were ‘compelling reasons’ the court should exercise its discretion in the claimant’s favour. He added she had been ‘effectively powerless’ to act sooner because of a lack of agreement and engagement with her stepchildren in respect of a property.

Andrew Fraser, partner at Fraser and Fraser, commented: ‘These cases highlight important issues and demonstrate the potential pitfalls that surround delay in inheritance matters.

‘We fully understand that, in exceptional circumstances, there may be occasions when time limits need to be extended and where common sense should apply. Having said that, we need to remain mindful that such limits also exist to help people avoid the costs and stresses that can accompany litigation following distribution of an estate.

‘Time limits are also in place to prevent the court from becoming bogged down with claims that could and should have been made at an early stage in the process. ’

For further advice contact Fraser and Fraser on 020 7832 1400.