11 June 2015

One brother takes the farm, the rest share a bungalow — another proprietary estoppel farm dispute

Paul Hewitt
Partner | UK

Davies v Davies pitched one brother, James (57), against his mother and four siblings in a proprietary estoppel claim to a farm, which the family had farmed 'for generations'.

Under their parents' wills, James was to have the farm on trust to the age of 60, at which point it was to be divided into five equal shares, four between all James' four siblings and the fifth between James' children.

The trial took place in May 2015. The father, Tom, had died sixteen years earlier. The mother is very elderly and was not able to give evidence in person.

James said that the wills, made in 1999 but which only came to his attention in 2012, were contrary to promises from as long ago as 1974 when he was 16 when Tom had said to him in Welsh that, as he was the one who was helping, if he came home 'the place is yours'. James was the only child interested in farming and continued to work on the farm whereas his siblings chose different careers.

From 1984 the parents lived in a bungalow on the farm grounds and James lived in the farmhouse alone until 1988 when, Cindy, his future wife moved in. Initially Tom and Cindy got on well but the relationship deteriorated.

James' evidence was that the promises continued throughout. The only other witness of promises was Cindy.

To establish proprietary estoppel, promises are not enough. There must be a reliance on those promises and the promisee must have relied on them to his or her detriment.

James' case was that he gave up alternative career options and worked long hours on the farm for a low wage. Following his father's retirement he continued to work very long hours and ploughed profits back into the farm, putting up sheds and new buildings which added significantly to farm value. He claimed his mother had stood by knowing of the promises and the wills, but not told James that the farm would not be his.

A neighbouring farmer, a branch secretary of the Farmers Union of Wales, and a local councillor, all gave evidence that they understood from Tom that James would inherit the farm.

Ultimately, despite strident opposition from the siblings who had known nothing of the promises (and felt their parents' wishes should be honoured), the Judge was satisfied that promises were made, that James had relied on the promises to his detriment, and that' although he had enjoyed some countervailing benefits which had to be taken into account (eg board and lodging, and profit since Tom's retirement), it would be unconscionable for the provisions in the parents' wills to take effect.

The Judge then had to determine what the minimum to do justice was, and decided that James should have the entire farm worth circa £880,000 in 2014 outright save for the bungalow worth circa £150,000.

Read the case here.

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