Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependants) Act 1975:
Six-Month Deadline and Standstill Agreements
The Inheritance (Provision for Family & Dependants) Act 1975 (‘the Act’) permits certain applicants to bring a claim against a deceased’s estate where no ‘reasonable financial provision’ has been made for them, be it under a will or on intestacy.
Under the Act, the six-month time limit starts running from the moment probate has been granted and any claim must be brought within this period. Claims not commenced within six months will require the court’s permission to be brought, in accordance with section 4 of the Act.
The recent decision of Mr Justice Mostyn in Cowan v Foreman and others  EWHC 349 (Fam) highlights the importance of adhering to the six-month time limit. Further, notwithstanding that standstill agreements may seem desirable because they extend the potential window for pre-action preparation and/or negotiation, parties should be cautious to enter into these in light of Mostyn J’s criticism.
In Cowan, the wife of the deceased delayed bringing her claim against the estate by 13 months, due to a standstill agreement between the parties. Mr Justice Mostyn remarked that, if standstill agreements are common practice, then they should come to an end. “It is not for the parties to give away time that belongs to the court. If the parties want to agree a moratorium for the purposes of negotiations, then the claim should be issued in time and then the court invited to stay the proceedings while the negotiations are pursued. Otherwise it is, as I remarked in argument, simply to cock a snook at the clear Parliamentary intention.”
The decision emphasises the importance of bringing a claim under the Act promptly and that the preferred course of action is for parties to issue and proceedings to be stayed, if necessary. The court will not look kindly on those who seek to take the timetable into their own hands, unless exceptional circumstances apply. As a general guide, Mostyn J remarked in Cowan that “absent highly exceptional factors, in the modern era of civil ligation the limit of excusable delay should be measured in weeks, or, at most, a few months.”