A High Court battle over a farming inheritance has highlighted why farmers need to ensure they have got a will in place, in order to avoid future costly disputes.
The recent case, Wills-v-Sowray, saw a court battle ensue after two brothers, Mathew and James Wills, successfully claimed rights on Gilmoor Farm, Harrogate, owned by their friend Anthony Sowray, after the brothers had worked for over 20 years on the land.
Despite informal promises made by Mr Sowray to the Wills brothers, he died without a will, which meant the deceased’s daughter, Claire Sowray, automatically inherited the estate through intestacy law.
Mathew and James Wills eventually won the estate, which included 50 acres of land worth £350,000, but the settlement still saw Mrs Sowray inherit the £150,000 farm house.
Andrew Wilkinson, partner at Lime Solicitors, said the case highlighted the ‘complex’ issues that arise in farming disputes, serving as a reminder as to why it is so important to create a will.
He said: “This case is another in a long line of so-called ‘estoppel’ cases – where someone has made promises which have subsequently been broken.
“The whole dispute could have been avoided had Anthony Sowray prepared a will. Preparing a will might cost him a few hundred pounds to prepare at the time, yet it would have saved his friends and family the cost, both financial and emotional, of litigation."
Amy Proferes, a barrister at Serle Court, said: "The recent decision in Wills-v-Sowray is yet another reminder of how interests in farms may be claimed under the doctrine of proprietary estoppel.
"To summarise, where an assurance is made that property will belong to the claimant, and the claimant relies on that assurance to their detriment, it will be unconscionable for the legal owner (or their personal representatives after their death) to deny that interest in the property.
"In this case two brothers, Matthew and James, successfully claimed rights in the farm owned by their friend Anthony. Matthew’s case was that he had helped Anthony on the farm from a very young age. When Anthony retired, he told Matthew that he could use the land however he liked, and that it would be his after Anthony died. James had lived on a small plot of land owned by Anthony from about 2007.
"He said that he and Anthony made a deal in 2012. If James gave Anthony his Jeep, Anthony would transfer him the land or leave it to him in his will.
"In the end, Anthony died without making a will, and his daughter Claire inherited the whole of the estate. She and Anthony had not met until 2005, but had become close in the years since. Claire claimed that Anthony had farmed the land until his death, that he intended for her to inherit the whole of the farm, and that Matthew and James were nothing more than tenants or licensees.
"The court accepted that Anthony had made the assurances to Matthew and James, and that they had relied on those assurances to their detriment: Matthew had worked the farm approximately 20 hours a week for 20 years without being paid, and had used his own money to improve and maintain the land. James had given his Jeep to Anthony, bought and installed a log cabin, and maintained ‘his’ land.
"Despite the lack of any contemporaneous documentation evidencing their cases, the judge was clearly impressed with Matthew and James as honest witnesses and found that Anthony had likely regarded them as akin to family.
"Claire’s evidence that her father had farmed the land until his death (including receiving RPA payments) was rejected. The court accepted that Anthony's intentions had changed following his reconciliation with Claire, and that he intended that she should receive the farmhouse and possibly the entirety of the farm.
"However, by that time both Matthew and James had already acquired proprietary rights to the land even if Anthony had changed his mind, he was no longer entitled to deny their interests."
Ms Proferes highlighted: "Given the recent run of cases involving family members successful claiming shares of farms, it is worth remembering that, as in this case, friends may also be found to fall within a ‘family’ context.
"Farmers should not only be careful to make wills, but to keep in mind that promises can have unforeseen consequences."
Andrew Wilkinson said: “Many of these ‘estoppel’ cases arise in a farming context – where reliance is often (mis)placed on informal assurances. For example, ‘the farm will be yours when I am gone’, and/or an assumption that the right documents have been put in place.
“But these disputes can be avoided if proper advice is taken and implemented early on. When thinking about your will, give some thought to those who might expect to inherit your assets when you are gone.
“If you want them to inherit your assets, then make sure your will does that. If you do not want that to happen, then be careful not to make the promises in the first place – or at least make it very clear, ideally in writing, that your intentions have changed.”