We often read about farming families where there has been a fall out over who inherits the farm after the farming parents have died.

One very common legal claim involving farming families is proprietary estoppel, where someone claims to have been promised the farm, or some part of it, when the main farmer dies. The latest reported case in this area involves the Thompson family and their farm based in County Durham.

Mr and Mrs Thompson had one son, Gilbert, and four daughters. Mr Thompson died in August 2012, and thereafter family relations appear to have broken down. Prior to Mr Thompson dying, there appears to have been an understanding that Gilbert would inherit the farm, including a bungalow,  and the daughters would be provided for by insurance policies. Gilbert is a partner in the farming partnership and has worked on the farm all of his life. He has never purchased his own property or sought a different career, his life was very much on the farm. The daughters were not involved in the farm.

The family background to this matter is quite complicated as there were various disputes between a number of parties, including Mrs Thompson’s dislike of Gilbert’s partner which seems to have played some part in her decision making.  Ultimately, in 2014, Mrs Thompson changed her Will and the new Will did not reflect the previous understanding that Gilbert would inherit the farm. Gilbert brought a claim for proprietary estoppel. For such a claim to be successful, Gilbert needed to be able to show:

  1. Representations, promises and assurances that the farm would be his had been made to him;
  2. Gilbert acted in reliance on those promises and assurances;
  3. That reliance had been to his detriment.

Judge Davis-White held that Gilbert had proved these three elements and his claim for proprietary estoppel was therefore successful. The judge stated that Gilbert has “dedicated his whole life to the Farm which has had an effect on his lifestyle in terms of working hours, financial independence and ability to buy or live in his own house”. Gilbert therefore should inherit the farm upon Mrs Thompson’s death.

This case highlights the difficulties that farming families can face when it comes to passing on a farm, and the upset that can be caused if matters are not dealt with properly. The judgement also makes reference to Mrs Thompson’s, along with her daughter Karen’s, “attempted character assassination” of Gilbert. This is a very sad situation for a family to find themselves in. Planning for farming families is absolutely vital so that everyone can be clear about the intention before the parents die, and solutions can be found to make provision for all the children.

At Myerson, our expert Dispute Resolution team can advise on claims such as proprietary estoppel, while our Private Client team can provide expert advice on planning for succession and structuring Wills.

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