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Farming and cohabitation

View profile for Caroline Dowding
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Cohabitees do not have the same rights as married couples in life or on death, and this is a concept that is largely overlooked when people live together as ‘husband and wife’ but do not enter into a legal arrangement.

There have been two farming cases recently that have highlighted this.

Claim for farm sale profits

The first case involves a cohabiting couple and a farm in Devon. Mr Griffey purchased the farm with a mortgage in his sole name in 2006, whilst he was in a relationship and living with Miss Dobson. The couple spent several years renovating and improving the farm with the intention of one day opening an equestrian business at the farm. In 2012, the relationship broke down and Miss Dobson moved out. Mr Griffey continued to live there and paid for further repairs and improvements over a 5 year period, before he sold the farm in 2017 for a £330,000 profit.

Miss Dobson claimed that she was entitled to 50% of the profits, as there was an agreement between them to share the ownership rights, and that she had contributed to the renovation works on the basis of that agreement. She claimed in the first instance that a constructive trust existed, or failing this, a claim for Proprietary Estoppel (which I have covered in several previous blogs). She also claimed that she had expected to be able to live at the farm for the rest of her life, and she had been told the property would be hers if he died.

Her case was dismissed as the decision to purchase the property was Mr Griffey’s alone, and Miss Dobson did not contribute to the purchase price or the mortgage. It was also held that it was not any promise made by Mr Griffey that made Miss Dobson work on the renovation of the property.

Inheritance claim 

The second case involves a farm and caravan park in Wales, which was owned by Mr Hodge. He left his £1.5M fortune to tenants at his site who had befriended him a few years prior to his death, and made no provisions in his will for his cohabitee, Ms Thompson, with whom he had lived for 42 years. In fact, he left express wishes that he did not wish for Ms Thompson to inherit because he considered her to have her own sufficient means to provide for herself. Ms Thompson made a claim to the High Court under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

The judge found in Ms Thompson’s favour on the grounds that Mr Hodge’s belief that she was financially comfortable was mistaken, as she only had savings of about £2,500 and was living on benefits. The judge awarded her a cottage on the estate worth £225,000,  the sum of £190,000 to pay for refurbishments to the cottage and for reasonable financial support, as Mr Hodge had failed to live up to his responsibilities as her long term partner of 42 years. Sadly Ms Thompson died just days after the ruling.

Current legislation does not make provisions for cohabiting couples, so those who do not marry should ensure that they have wills and, if necessary, cohabitation agreements in place to afford them protection where the law fails to. Equally, seeking specialist advice at an early stage can save time, money and unnecessary stress further down the line.

Please contact me for a free 15 minute chat if you need further advice on proprietary estoppel, creating wills or estate planning. I am based at our Colchester office and can be contacted on 01206 217394 or caroline.dowding@birkettlong.co.uk.

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