The tale of a devoted son labouring for years on a family farm only to be cut out of his father’s will is so often told as to be almost a cliché. However, as a High Court ruling showed, such stories are often reflected in the sad and recurring reality of agricultural inheritance disputes.
When he died, a father was the beneficial owner of a 20 per cent stake in his family farm. He also held a 25 per cent share of a company that ran a market gardening business on the land. By his will, he bequeathed everything he owned, save for a £20,000 legacy to his partner, to his middle son. The other two sons received nothing.
Since his death, the land – which had residential development potential – and the business’s assets had been sold for a seven-figure sum. That greatly raised the stakes in that the value of his estate was thereby increased to about £1.7 million. The two disinherited sons launched proceedings.
Ruling on the matter, the Court found that all three brothers had started working on the farm at a very early age. Although the disinherited sons had left home for a while after leaving school, they each returned to devote themselves to the family farming business. The three of them worked long and arduous hours, for relatively low pay, and profits from the farm were largely ploughed back into the business.
The Court found that their father and their mother, who predeceased him, had reassured them on numerous occasions that they would in due course all be treated equally. The couple wanted to keep everything within the family and, although informally made, their assurances went beyond mere expressions of intent and were binding.
The disinherited brothers had relied upon their parents’ assurances. Notwithstanding that they had shared handsomely in the profits from the assets and land sale, that reliance was to their detriment. Overall, their father’s decision to renege on the assurances of equality when making his will was unconscionable.
In effectively rewriting the will, the Court ruled that the proceeds of the sale of the father’s land and business assets should be divided equally between the three brothers. His personal, non-business assets – worth about £233,000 – would, however, be inherited by the middle brother alone.