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Kaur v Singh: The Inheritance Act and patriarchal inheritance practices

In Kaur v Singh a widow successfully challenged her late husband’s attempt to leave his estate to the male family line, which would have left her with nothing. This case shows how, in certain circumstances, the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 can be a powerful tool to challenge patriarchal inheritance practices and redistribute family wealth.

The decision

Harbans Kaur was 83 and had been married to her husband, Karnail Singh, for 66 years at the time of his death in 2021. During that time, Ms Kaur had seven children and worked in the family clothing business. She received no salary and had no financial interest in the business. In addition, she had no interest in the family home, four residential properties, a commercial property and land in India owned by her husband.

Mr Singh left his entire estate to his two sons, leaving nothing to his wife or daughters because he “wished to leave his estate solely down the male line”.

The question for the court was whether a nil inheritance represented “reasonable provision” for Mrs Kaur, taking into account the factors listed under section 3 of the Inheritance Act. These included the size of the estate, Mrs Kaur’s financial circumstances and health and, importantly, the duration of the marriage and her contribution to the welfare of the family, including “any contribution made by looking after the home or caring for the family“.

The answer was straightforward – Peel J described it as “the clearest possible case” – and awarded her 50% of the estate. Mrs Kaur was elderly, registered disabled and reliant on annual benefit income of under £12,000.  She had been entirely financially dependent on her husband throughout their long marriage. Following his death, she had left the family home due to strained relations with one of her sons and relied on one of her daughters for accommodation.

Central to the court’s decision was the “divorce cross check” which aims to ensure that a surviving spouse is not left in a worse position than they would have been in had the marriage ended by divorce. Mrs Kaur had made a “full and equal contribution” to the marriage and it was clear that she could have expected to receive at least 50% of the matrimonial assets on a divorce.

What does this case mean for future wives and daughters deprived of inheritance in favour of their male relatives?

This decision shows how the Inheritance Act can provide an effective means of redress for spouses/civil partners left vulnerable after being excluded from property ownership within the family.

It is important to bear in mind, however, that the court was not deciding whether Mr Singh’s decision to prefer his male family members was in itself reasonable or fair. Rather, it was examining whether the result of the terms of the Will – i.e. the practical impact on Mrs Kaur in the context of their relationship as husband and wife – was such that reasonable provision had not been made. In this regard, this decision simply reiterates that spouses/civil partners owe obligations to one another which cannot be disregarded on death, and that their respective contributions during the marriage/civil partnership – both financial and non-financial – must be taken into account.

It follows that an Inheritance Act claim will not necessarily help a daughter who feels she has been unfairly excluded from a Will due to a parent’s desire to keep property ownership on the male side of the family. Whilst children are eligible applicants under the Inheritance Act, the court’s powers are limited to making awards for their maintenance and the courts generally expect independent adult children who are capable of earning their own living to maintain themselves rather than receiving provision from their parent’s estate.

Practical barriers may also limit use of the Inheritance Act in reality – for example the costs of pursuing litigation and the social stigma associated with potentially bringing private family issues into the public sphere. Mrs Kaur’s solicitor has called for a cultural change in certain communities in which male heirs are often prioritised to try and avoid the need for people in Mrs Kaur’s position to have to resort to litigation.

The most radical way to ensure testators do not exclude the women in the family would be to introduce forced heirship rules reserving a certain proportion of the estate for spouses and/or children, or requiring parity between male and female children. However, this would represent a sea change in the approach to inheritance and, given the value traditionally placed on testamentary freedom in England and Wales, seems unlikely.

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