By Melanie Pickering of Roche Legal
More than 30 million people in Britain do not have a will, which can lead to costly disputes and serious damage to family relationships, as highlighted by a recent case centred on a dispute over ownership of a farm house.
The case involved a farming family that became bitterly divided over how a bungalow on the land was to pass – either through a will, or as a partnership asset.
In 1978, Ben Wild, a Derbyshire dairy farmer, went into partnership with his eldest son, Malcolm.
Ben’s younger son Gregory joined the partnership in 1994, along with Ben’s wife, Jean – although she went on to leave the partnership again five years later.
When Ben died in 2003, Malcolm and Gregory were the remaining partners. They continued the partnership for several years until relations deteriorated.
In 2016, Gregory began proceedings to dissolve the partnership and for the partnership assets to be shared out.
However, the partnership accounts were ambiguous and at no time during the partnership’s near 40-year history had any kind of agreement been drawn up.
At the centre of the dispute was a bungalow on the farm. Malcolm and his wife, Abigail, had been living in the bungalow since 1988, but if this was ruled to be a partnership asset, Gregory could be entitled to a share of it as one of the partners.
The court had to decide Ben’s intentions without the help of any partnership agreement or mention of the bungalow in his will.
Instead, it had to do so largely by relying on witness statements from people recounting events which happened between 15 and 40 years ago, with many of those witnesses having a substantial interest in the outcome of the case.
What this case highlights is the importance of getting your affairs in order and your wishes clearly understood to avoid this kind of damaging scenario.
With a clearer statement of his intentions, Ben could have avoided the lengthy and costly litigation that his sons went through in deciding these issues.
A formal partnership agreement – and clear records – or even a Letter of Wishes accompanying his will, could have clarified matters.
It would have been a clear indication that he did not consider the property to be owned by the partnership, and it would therefore have been left to the people he wanted to receive it.
Fortunately for Malcolm and his family, the judge ruled that the bungalow was not a partnership asset on the facts.
When dealing with your post-death intentions – if it is not written down, it might not happen.
This is one of the best reasons for making a will.
It shows the people dealing with your property and assets what you want to happen. Not only does this mean your intentions take effect, it helps avoid family or friends arguing over what your intentions might have been.