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Farming dispute goes to Court of Appeal

View profile for Caroline Dowding
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Last year I wrote an article about the contested estate of Farmer Roger Moore, who had dementia, and the claim his son made in respect of proprietary estoppel (in this case, a promise that “all of this will be yours one day”).

Mr Moore’s wife took advantage of her husband’s situation and made Mr Moore change his will in 2012, despite him having suffered from dementia from 2009 when he had to take a step back from the business. This was in a bid to stop their son inheriting the £10M farm in favour of their daughter, who considered it unfair that the biggest asset would pass to her son in its entirety. Mother and son had clearly had a difficult relationship over the years, and it is evident that she favoured her daughter.

Mr Moore’s son, Stephen, firstly went to agricultural college before returning to the farm to work. He lived a frugal lifestyle in a bungalow on the estate, earning less than £300 per week working on the farm to support his family. He had not taken holidays, but had worked hard to build up the business working more than 100 hours per week on the promise that one day the farm would be his.

What is unusual about this case is that Mr Moore is still alive, but is incapacitated and is therefore unable to make decisions, or indeed alter his will. Stephen now effectively runs the farm alone.

The court ruled that Stephen was entitled to the entire farm (of which he already owned 50%), including the farmhouse, as he was able to rely on his father’s promise that the farm would eventually be his. It was ultimately always Mr Moore’s intention that his son take over the farm, and Stephen had worked tirelessly on that basis.

This case is now back in the spotlight as Mrs Moore has appealed to the Court of Appeal on the grounds the decision is unfair on her daughter. She also argues that there was never any legally binding promise to leave the farm to Stephen, and that he had not suffered any detriment by not inheriting his father’s 50% share, as he had already acquired 50% share from his uncle at significantly less than market value. A full hearing before the Court of Appeal will take place at a later date which is yet to be set.

This highlights the difficulty of proprietary estoppel claims, as well as ensuring succession planning is done at an early stage, with open communications with all family members. At Birkett Long we advocate having round the table discussions with all parties involved to try any avoid any surprises or disappointment at a later date.

If you need any assistance with any of the above issues, or any other aspects of your farm, then please do get in touch with our Agriculture and Estates team on 01206 217394 or alternatively email me on caroline.dowding@birkettlong.co.uk.

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