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Farming family inheritance fallouts – disputes on the rise

An increasing number of people are ending up in court claiming a promise that they will one day inherit the family farm has been broken.

The latest case involves dairy farmer's son, Andrew Guest, who was awarded a £2.7 million share of the family farm, land and business by a Bristol High Court judge even though his father had cut him out of his Will following a series of rows.

Mr Guest brought his claim based on the principle of 'proprietary estoppel'. He said he'd worked on the family farm for more than 30 years, enduring long days for a much lower salary than he could have commanded elsewhere.

He'd only done so, he said, because he'd believed his dad's promise that one day a significant share of Tump Farm in Monmouthshire would be his.

What is 'proprietary estoppel'?

'Proprietary estoppel' can be used to stop someone reneging on a promise or assurance, however informally made, when that assurance was relied upon by the other person to their detriment.

It hinges on being able to prove the person bringing the claim had reasonable grounds for believing they would one day inherit property. As a result of relying on this assurance, and making life choices accordingly, they were left at a disadvantage.

What happened in this case?

Mr Guest's claim for 'proprietary estoppel' was brought against his parents, David and Josephine Guest. Unusually, in cases of this kind, both Andrew's parents were still alive; usually such claims are brought after the death of the person who made the promise.

It turned into a hard-fought battle lasting more than four years with Mr and Mrs Guest denying virtually every aspect of Andrew's claim, particularly that they had ever promised him an inheritance.

But the court heard that before David Guest fell out with his son and made a new Will disinheriting him, he had indeed made various assurances that Andrew would one day take over the business and eventually inherit the farm.

There was evidence of letters and conversations, including an article in a local newspaper in which David Guest was quoted as saying he wanted to keep the farm in the family and hoped Andrew's son would inherit it one day.

The court also agreed that Andrew, who has several qualifications in farming, could have got a better paid job with more security elsewhere but stayed on the family farm because he was relying on inheriting the business one day.

How was it sorted out?

Judge Jonathan Russen QC accepted Andrew's evidence that his parents had promised he would inherit at least a share of the farm and that it was morally unacceptable for them to go back on their promise.

He said Andrew and his parents had 'fallen out so badly' it would be impossible for him and his wife to move back to Tump Farm and that the 'level of mistrust' between Andrew, his father and brother would make it impossible for them to farm together. The only option therefore, was a financial clean break.

Observing that it would probably be necessary for Tump Farm to be sold, at least in part, he awarded Andrew 50 per cent of the value of the dairy business and 40 per cent of the freehold value of the land and buildings.

More farming disputes

Disputes of this type are increasingly common in the agricultural world, possibly because farms are so often family concerns handed down from generation to generation with robust succession planning sometimes overlooked as a result.

The courts have seen an increase in proprietary estoppel cases, both in the number of claims being issued and those making it all the way to the courtroom.

As the majority of these types of family disputes tend to be settled out of court, it gives an indication of the increase in the total numbers being brought and the need for specialist legal advice from the outset.

Wards Solicitors has a dedicated, award winning Probate Disputes team specialising in these sorts of claims. It is led by Partner Elizabeth Fry, recommended in the independent Legal 500 guide for 2019, for "providing a very strong combination of legal analysis and fact management which works towards the best possible outcome for the client."

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