Many children, particularly in farming families, build their lives on the foundations of a promised future inheritance. As a High Court ruling showed, such promises may be as binding in death as they are in life and those who renege on them do an excellent job of rendering their wills vulnerable to legal challenge.
The case concerned a farmer’s son who left school at 15, without qualifications, and dedicated himself to working on the family holding. He and his proud, strong-willed and old-fashioned father had frequent rows and disagreements but, for decades, they worked together on the increasingly prosperous farm.
The son, who was in late middle age and suffering from multiple sclerosis, said that his father had made it clear to him from his earliest days that he was going to have a career in agriculture and that the farmland would one day be his. However, a few months prior to his death, his father made a new will that dashed any such expectations.
By the will, his father placed almost all his freehold land into a discretionary trust. In a side letter, he expressed his wish that the land should be held for the benefit of all his three children but should ultimately pass to his grandchildren in equal shares when they reached the age of 30.
After the son challenged the terms of the will, the Court found that his father had, on many occasions, assured him that he would inherit the farm. Usually made during arguments, those assurances were intended to be taken seriously and were his means of mollifying his son and ensuring that he stayed committed to the farm.
They were a significant inducement to the son to stay at the farm, to work hard and to bend himself to his father’s will. He relied upon his father’s word to his detriment, thereby rendering the assurances irrevocable. By the time the father came to make his final will, it was too late for him to change his mind.
There was no change of circumstances that could justify the father going back on his assurances. He appeared to think that his son was dying and that the farm was at risk of passing out of family hands. He was, however, wrong about his son’s life expectancy and had no good reason for depriving him of his expected inheritance.
Issues as to how the son’s legitimate expectations should be met were left over for agreement between the parties or further argument. However, the Court expressed the preliminary view that he should have the entirety of the farm, save for about 90 acres which were said to have development potential. Although he would have the agricultural value of those acres, their development value would remain in his father’s estate and pass in accordance with his will.