Farms, Families and Promises
When it comes to farming families, the recent case of Spencer v Spencer  EWHC 2050 offers an interesting insight into the way that informal arrangements and broken promises can often result in acrimony, family breakdowns and expensive court proceedings.
The High Court considered a claim by Michael Spencer in which he argued that his late father, John Spencer had promised him the farm on his death but had failed to provide this to him in his will.
The 405 acre farm had been acquired by John over many years. He had been assisted by two of his three children, with Michael driving tractors from age 12, and from 13 regularly working during term time and holidays. Michael left school at 15, without qualifications and began farming full time.
In 1983 Michael and John, along with John’s wife and daughter Penny, set up a farming partnership which continued until Jean and Penny retired in 1996. After it was accepted that it was just John and Michael who ran the farm, with Michael taking on an increasing role and an increasing share of the partnership profits.
The Court accepted that in the earlier years John paid Michael a low wage, discouraged him from moving off the farm and dissuaded him from starting his own business. Michael claimed that he continued working on the farm because his father had promised him that it would be his one day. He said that this had been said to him by his father on many occasions – often during their almost weekly arguments.
Indeed, the Court accepted that John had said to Michael things like ‘what is your problem, it will all be yours one day’ and ‘You work hard. It will all be yours one day’.
John had also made two wills, in 1993 and then in 2003 in which he left the farm to Michael. It was for this reason that it came as a nasty surprise that upon John’s death it was discovered that he had made a new will, some 5 months earlier in which Michael had not been left the farm.
Michael issued a Proprietary Estoppel claim which was defended by his two sisters who argued that no such promises had ever been made and that the terms of the recent will should be respected.
In reaching its decision the Court considered evidence from multiple witnesses including Michael, local landowners and family friends. The Court found that whilst Michael’s evidence wasn’t always the most reliable, for the most part he was being honest.
The Court found that John had promised Michael the farm, he knew Michael was relying upon these promises and that by relying on these promises Michael had suffered to his detriment and that it would be unconscionable (morally unfair) for the promise to be reneged upon. The Court then had to decide how to right this wrong.
Despite receiving the lion’s share of the partnership profits – including holding over £1.4 million capital in the partnership account and a substantial pension fund, the Court determined that the only fair remedy was for the farm to be transferred to Michael.
Everys’ Wills Disputes team has dealt with many cases regarding proprietary estoppel over the years including those involving farms.
If you have concerns regarding a will, whether that be ensuring your will is up-to-date with your wishes or you want to challenge a will, then please speak to a member of our Wills Dispute team or Private Client team.