Farming inheritance dispute - when promises are broken

Recently, we have seen yet another farming inheritance dispute relating to a substantial and extremely valuable agricultural holding hit the headlines. It again involves a broken promise and the legal principle of Proprietary Estoppel.

The 2016 farming inheritance dispute

In 2016, the case of Moore v Moore was heard in the High Court. It involved a Wiltshire Farm which had been passed down by a Father to two of his three Sons, Roger and Geoffrey. They had gone on to build up a very large and successful farming business valued in the region of £10 million.

Roger had two children - Stephen and Julie. Stephen worked on the farm since childhood, while Julie was more academic and pursued different career options. A number of Witnesses gave evidence that it was always the intention that Stephen would one day inherit the farm. This arrangement extended to Geoffrey gifting his interest in the business to Stephen at a significant undervalue in about 2008, firmly believing that Roger would do likewise so as to pass the farm down to the next generation and to keep it going in the family name. This was despite Geoffrey having children of his own, to whom he could of course have passed the farm.

Following Geoffrey’s retirement and control of the business gradually passing to Stephen, allied with Roger’s mental health beginning to deteriorate, relations within the family started to become strained. Furthermore, the Judge took the view that Roger’s Wife, Pamela, began to become the driver of matters and the dispute quickly escalated. In particular, the court found that Pamela was increasingly upset at her Son receiving far more than her Daughter, Julie.

Proprietary estoppel

The legal principle of Proprietary Estoppel is based on equitable principles of fairness and justice. In essence, it states that if promises are made and a person relies on those promises to their detriment, then it would be unconscionable for the promise not to be upheld.

After listening to a number of witnesses, including the main protagonists, the Judge decided that Roger had made promises to Stephen to the effect that he would inherit his interest in the farming business, that Stephen had relied on those promises to his detriment by working in and devoting his life to the farm for very little pay, and that it would not be just for Roger to resile from those promises.

Accordingly, the court decided that Stephen should receive the entirety of Roger’s interest in the business, subject to his having to provide for Roger and Pamela's housing and care needs.  

The appeal

However, Pamela has  now obtained permission to appeal that Judgment. While allowing her to appeal, the Court has urged the parties to engage in Alternative Dispute Resolution to avoid ever-escalating legal costs in what is already a lengthy farming inheritance dispute extending over a number of years.

How we can help

If you are involved in a farming inheritance dispute, or any other inheritance dispute where promises have been made about future entitlement, then please contact our Contentious Trusts and Probate Team on 0808 139 1599 or send us an email at info@inheritancedisputes.co.uk