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Posted 24 October 2018
by Martin Laver

Proprietary Estoppel – One Day, the Farm Will all be Yours

Lambs in a field

A recent court case has shown that the Courts are willing to award the entirety of a farm to a farmer’s child after a lifetime of work and casual promises that the child would receive the farm upon the farmer’s death. These types of disputes are reasonably common.

Gilbert Thompson was the child of Doreen and Norman Thompson. Mr and Mrs Thompson had a farm, farmhouse and a bungalow. Gilbert’s case was that throughout his life, his parents both made promises to him that upon their death, the farm, farmhouse and bungalow would be his. Gilbert relied on these promises, to his detriment and worked on the farm for his entire life (and entered into a partnership in 1993) for a very low wage. Gilbert was never able to buy his own property and gave up any independence and life outside of the farm.

Sadly, Mr Thompson died in 2012 and Gilbert fell out with his mother and one of his sisters, Karen. Mrs Thompson became fixated on controlling the family, even to the point of dictating to Gilbert how he could arrange furniture in the farmhouse where he lived with his long-term girlfriend. Gilbert fell out with his mother and one of his sister’s, Karen, however his other two sisters Elaine and Pauline fully supported Gilbert’s claim and gave evidence on his behalf.

Mrs Thompson’s case was that Gilbert was only entitled to a one-third share of the farm through the partnership and that share made up for his own lifestyle choice. Mrs Thompson and Gilbert’s sister Karen maintained that Gilbert was unfit to be a farmer and therefore no such promises were (and would not have been made).

The court heard evidence that Gilbert worked on the farm from the age of 15 when he left school, earning approximately £20 per week. He worked 7 days a week and sometimes up to 18 hours a day, although not every day. Gilbert’s pay went up to about £40 per week when he was 19 or 20 years old and over the years slightly increased however, his pay never exceeded £70 per week. The Court also heard evidence from the family’s accountant that Gilbert’s parents felt very strongly that Gilbert must be looked after and that he should be allowed to farm the land so long as he wished to do so. Gilbert’s two sisters Pauline and Elaine fully supported Gilbert’s claim and gave evidence on his behalf – which the court accepted.

Mrs Thompson’s evidence was not accepted as it contradicted independent evidence from the solicitors who prepared her wills (and previous wills) as well as that of the family accountant who had prepared the partnership accounts for many years. The court likewise, did not accept any of the evidence given by any other witness on behalf of Mrs Thompson.

The Court ruled that there was a sufficient link between the assurance relied on and the detriment suffered by Gilbert to support his claim under the doctrine of Proprietary Estoppel. The court was satisfied that Gilbert had indeed been promised the farm in return for his life’s work on it. The court also found that Gilbert reasonably relied on those promises and he devoted his entire working life to the farm and the business. The court determined that it would be unconscionable to now deny Gilbert the farm upon Mrs Thompson’s death.

This case is quite interesting because Mrs Thompson was still alive. As a result, the Court ordered that Mrs Thompson would have a life interest in the farm and partnership and restrained her from adversely dealing with the farm and/or partnership during her lifetime. Mrs Thompson was to retain a life interest in the bungalow, with the title transferring to Gilbert upon her death.

This case highlights that promises made and relied upon can form the basis for quite substantial claims in the future. Proprietary Estoppel claims are not limited to farming matters but are often found there because of the nature in which families work on farms.

If you require advice regarding a matter similar to this, please do not hesitate to get in touch with our experienced team of disputed will solicitors on 01392 207020.

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About the author

Martin Laver

Partner and Solicitor

Partner in the commercial litigation team specialising in disputed trusts and Wills