Elizabeth Ramus, widow of the late Christopher Ramus, sued their daughter, Claire Holt, for control over the £900,000 trust fund set up by Christopher’s Will.
In June 2020, while Christopher and Elizabeth were in the midst of divorce proceedings, Christopher took his own life.
The couple had amassed a substantial amount of wealth, having set up Ramus Seafoods in 1974. They ran the business together until it was sold in 1999, and thereafter lived comfortably off of the sale proceeds.
Christopher left a Will in which he appointed daughter Claire along with two family friends as the Executors and Trustees, and in which, subject to various small gifts, left his residuary Estate on life interest trust for the benefit of his widow, Elizabeth.
Christopher had apparently provided for Elizabeth in this way in order that she could ‘maintain her lifestyle.’ The Trustees were also granted the discretionary power to apply capital for Elizabeth’s benefit.
Notwithstanding having conferred onto his Trustees the power to advance capital to Elizabeth, Christopher explained in his Letter of Wishes that he would prefer for Elizabeth to only receive income, as he wished to preserve the capital for future generations.
In addition to their discretionary powers in respect of advancing capital, the Trustees would ultimately also have a discretionary power to bring the income payments to an end if, for example, they were no longer required or if Elizabeth remarried or cohabited with another.
Elizabeth was nervous that she had seemingly been left financially at the ‘mercy’ of the Trustees, and feared that because of the ‘strained relationship’ she had with Claire, there was a risk that the Trustees might terminate her interest.
The claim brought pursuant to the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (the Act) was argued on the grounds that, as the Trust could be brought to an end, the Will failed to provide reasonable financial provision for Elizabeth.
In her witness statements, Elizabeth recounted details of her tumultuous relationship with Claire. Claire had apparently queried her mother’s lifestyle and existing wealth (deriving at least in part from her former share in the business she owned with Christopher), stating that Elizabeth was ‘a millionaire’ who already had in her own right ‘sufficient income to live comfortably.’
Upper Tribunal Judge Mark West, sitting as Judge of the High Court, found the arguments advanced by Elizabeth to be novel in the context of the Act, as claims of this kind ordinarily contested the dispositive provisions of the Will rather than the identity of a Trustee.
Ultimately, the Court rejected Elizabeth’s claim under the Act.
In particular, the Judge referred to the fact that Claire would not have the sole power to terminate the life interest (i.e. and therefore bring an end to Elizabeth’s right to income), and that the Trustees would need to be in unanimous agreement to exercise that power.
The Court was satisfied that the underlying point of dispute was actually that of Claire’s role as Trustee, and that the Act therefore did not give him jurisdiction to make an Order in respect of Elizabeth’s claim. He considered that a ruling on this, in the context of a claim under the Act, would undermine other laws concerning Trustee removal.
This case restates the scope of the Act, and its limitations insofar as it relates to the stewardship of the Estate or Trust against which any such claim is brought.