In recent years, there has been a rise in media coverage of farming ‘inheritance’ disputes. Often, these cases involved a parent promising that if the child worked hard, the farm would be theirs one day, only for the farm to be left to another. The child then brought a ‘proprietary estoppel’ claim asking the Court to recognise their interest in the farm and all their hard work for limited or no return.
In addition, the increase in land values and farms being seen as ‘multimillion-pound business assets’ have driven non-farming family members to challenge the status quo of the eldest child inheriting the farming business. Some farms potentially run multiple businesses on the land and focus on diversification, which is also attracting high values for farmland.
It is essential to consider how farming families can ensure good communication between all family members and implement proper structures to avoid inheritance disputes.
Spencer v Spencer [ 2023]
The facts of this case are typical of a farming family.
Michael Spencer left school at the age of 15, without qualifications, to work full time on the farm, with his father promising him that he would inherit the farm upon his father’s death. He worked hard for years and turned down other business opportunities. Their farming partnership was successful even though their relationship was not ‘an easy or entirely happy one’.
On his father’s death, Michael discovered that his father had made a new Will in which he did not inherit the farm. Michael then issued court proceedings on the basis that his father had promised the farm to him and he had relied on this promise to his detriment.
The Court accepted Michael’s claim that his father had promised him that he would inherit the farm and that the promise had induced Michael to stay and work at the farm.
The Court ruled that the farm (save for 90 acres) should be transferred to Michael.This case serves as a reminder of the Court’s power to uphold a promise that it considers to be fair and just to do so.
How we can help
As the NFU legal panel firm for Kent and East Sussex, we have a dedicated team with a detailed understanding of the succession issues that you may encounter. Our specialist solicitors can assist by:
- The provision of early succession advice ensures that your wishes are included in a professionally prepared Will that is regularly reviewed and kept up to date.
- Tax planning and advice on the best structure for your farming business.
- Reviewing Partnership arrangements and ensuring that Partnership Agreements are up to date.
- Advising you in relation to and acting for you should a dispute arise.