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Farming families and inheritance disputes

Clarke Willmott successful for client in significant inheritance dispute case

Last year we reported on how we had successfully represented farmer and National Farmers’ Union member Andrew Guest in a significant High Court inheritance case against his parents.

Andrew’s parents then appealed against the High Court’s decision to the Court of Appeal.

We are delighted to report that yesterday (17 March 2020) the Court of Appeal comprehensively dismissed the appeal and in doing so, set a significant precedent in this area of law.

The family business and relationship breakdown

Andrew is the son of dairy farmers David and Josephine Guest. The Guest family has farmed Tump Farm near Chepstow since 1938 and for three generations.

As is common in farming families, Andrew left school at 16 and worked full-time on the farm. He often worked 60 – 80 hours a week, typically starting at 5.30am each day to milk the cows and not finishing until late into the evening.

Throughout Andrew’s time on the farm he was paid a low wage, which for many years was less than the minimum wage stipulated by the Agricultural Wages Board. Andrew, and later his wife and children, lived in a converted cottage on Tump Farm.

The parents repeatedly led Andrew to believe that he would inherit a significant part of Tump Farm.

In 2012, the Guest family created two separate farming partnerships: one between Andrew and the parents at Tump Farm and the other between Andrew’s younger brother Ross and the parents at a rented, neighbouring farm.

Regrettably, the partnership between Andrew and his parents was short-lived and the relationship between Andrew and his father broke down. Indeed, it came to light during the latter stages of the case that the parents and Ross took to secretly recording conversations involving Andrew.

In April 2015, 32 years after Andrew left school and started working full-time on the farm, the parents’ solicitor wrote to Andrew dissolving the partnership thereby forcing Andrew to seek work elsewhere. They also gave Andrew, his wife and their children three months to leave their family cottage on Tump Farm.

David Guest later made a further Will disinheriting Andrew completely.

Andrew’s claim and the case

Andrew bought a claim in the High Court against his parents on the basis of the doctrine of proprietary estoppel. In essence, this allows a person to ask the Court to intervene if the following (often overlapping) conditions are present:

  1. There has been a promise or assurance made by a person (A) to another (B) which creates an expectation that B has or would become entitled to a right or interest in A’s land;
  2. That promise or assurance was relied on by B;
  3. B has suffered detriment as a result of relying on the promise or assurance; and
  4. It would be unconscionable, in all the circumstances, to allow A to go back on their promise or assurance.

Andrew’s parents denied virtually every aspect of Andrew’s claim. In particular, they denied that they had made any promises to Andrew about his inheritance.

The High Court’s decision

The case went to trial in the High Court in November and December 2018.

The full Judgment of His Honour Judge Russen QC can be found here. It records that the Judge accepted Andrew’s evidence that his parents repeatedly led Andrew to believe that he would inherit a significant part of the farm. The Judge further held that it was unconscionable for the parents to go back on this promise.

As a result, the Judge ordered the parents to pay Andrew a sum of money which is calculated by reference to:

  1. 50% of the post-tax market value of the farming business carried on at Tump Farm; and
  2. 40% of the post-tax market value of Tump Farm.

This order, in effect, awarded Andrew what his parents had promised him he would inherit.

The Judge recognised that this would almost certainly mean that the farm would have to be sold in order to satisfy the Judgment.

A question of remedy

The parents were then granted permission to appeal to the Court of Appeal solely on the question of remedy, i.e. what sum of money or other remedy the parents should pay to Andrew as a result of their unconscionable conduct.

The appeal was heard by three Lord Justices in the Court of Appeal on 11 February 2020.

The full judgment of the Court of Appeal can be found here. The Court of Appeal roundly rejected Andrew’s parents’ arguments and upheld the High Court’s award.

Contact an inheritance dispute specialist

Andrew’s parents put in place a series of measures which were designed to leave Andrew, in his fifties, with no home, no job, no savings, and no pension, despite a lifetime’s worth of work. Thankfully, the Court was prepared to use its powers to prevent this clear injustice and, as a result, Andrew will now receive his inheritance during his parents’ lifetimes.

We are delighted to have helped Andrew achieve this result.

Aside from being a significant decision in this area of law, the case also highlights the need for those involved in or contemplating bringing inheritance disputes to get expert legal advice as soon as possible so as to avoid the situation Andrew’s parents now find themselves in, i.e. having to sell the family farm in order to correct their own, unconscionable decisions.

If you would like any further information on this case or any aspect of inheritance law please contact us.

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