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Farms – the perfect breeding ground for will disputes

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Posted by Katie Alsop on 04 June 2015

Katie Alsop - Will Disputes Lawyer
Katie Alsop Partner

More and more disputes among farming families following the death of a family member are being reported in the press. It is not unusual to have several generations of the same family working a farm and so if the senior member of the family has not left clear instructions about who gets what after their death, then there is enormous potential for contesting a will. This is not only disrupts the day to day farming operations but is also very destructive of family relations.

Making a will – and review it regularly

The best way to ensure that your wishes are carried out is to leave a will. It is not uncommon for wills to be written at the same time as a significant event, such as a marriage or the birth of child - and then for it to be left, unvisited for many years. Succession planning should play an important part of business planning but it is a notoriously difficult subject to deal with.

Dispute over inheritance

In a recent case involving a farming family in Wales, the deceased had left a will which stipulated that one of his sons, James, was to farm the farm until retirement at the age of 60, after which time the farm was to be split between all the deceased’s children. This instruction conflicted with James’ understanding. James had understood that the farm would be his following a promise made to him by his parents.   

James claimed on the basis that the deceased had promised him the farm despite not receiving it under the deceased’s will. In order to work on the farm, James had attended agricultural college instead of pursuing a career in the police force as he would have chosen. Although he had paid a nominal amount of rent for his accommodation, James had been paid very low wages for his work on the farm and had invested substantial sums of money to improve the business when both his mother and father retired. Essentially, James had acted to his detriment based on the promise made to him.

James’ brothers and the Executors of the Deceased’s Estate (the defendants), argued that James had exaggerated the extent of his hardship and that he had received other benefits from living on the farm. However, the deceased had given his other children financial gifts over the years but nothing to James. Witness evidence from James’ wife and the deceased’s sister and brother-in-law supported James’ case and Judge Milwyn Jarman QC found that it would “unconscionable to deny James the farm”. Judge Jarman QC described the case as a “very sad, bitter, family dispute”. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon scenario among farming families.

The Defendants were ordered to pay James’ legal costs of £68,397 demonstrating the cost of this type of case. Further information on the extent of costs associated with inheritance claims and will disputes can be found here.

Clear communication is key

Matters of this type tend to run high on emotion and can very quickly get out of hand without the right legal advice. Although not always easy, if clear lines of communication can be kept open at the outset of a potential dispute then there is hope that an early resolution can be achieved. James’ claim was dealt with at a four day trial; however, there are almost always opportunities to settle these types of matters before a case gets too far down the road including mediation and ‘without prejudice’ meetings. Mediation has a good track record in helping to settle cases and it is considerably less costly and stressful than going to court.

Our contentious probate team deals with these types of disputes on a regular basis and we are very familiar with the issues surrounding the running of a farm and agricultural settings. We understand the need to resolve matters quickly so that things on the ground can continue as normal. If you find yourself in a position where a problem has arisen following the death of a family member where a farm or agricultural land is involved, then please get in touch. 

About the author

Katie specialises in contested wills, disputed estates and the removal and substitution of executors.

Katie Alsop

Katie specialises in contested wills, disputed estates and the removal and substitution of executors.

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