A long-running dispute over the future of a family farm which ended in a £1.1million payout is good news for people who lose out after years of hard work because of broken promises, a leading solicitor says.
Partner and agricultural specialist Steven Corfield said the case of Lucy Habberfield – who took her 81-year-old mother to court over the inheritance of the family’s dairy farm – showed the courts would act to make sure children were rewarded for working hard on their parents’ land if necessary.
Mrs Habberfield was awarded £1.17million by the High Court after arguing her father had promised her that she would eventually take over the running of the family’s Somerset dairy farm, which she had helped build up and run.
She said that when she complained of low wages and long hours, her father would tell her that she would take over the farm when he was no longer able to do so.
However, when her father died in 2014 the farm passed to his wife and the promises were not acted upon.
Mrs Habberfield successfully argued that, under the doctrine of ‘proprietary estoppel’, she was entitled to a share of the business and land.
Under proprietary estoppel, anyone who relies on a promise but suffers a personal detriment as a result, can bring a claim if the promise is not honoured.
The court heard 50-year-old Mrs Habberfield had worked at the farm for more than 30 years since leaving school for low wages and with little holiday. Her partner had joined her on the farm in 2007 and she brought up her four children whilst running the business.
She left the farm after a dispute in 2013 and when her father died the following year the business passed to her mother, who disputed any inheritance agreement had been made.
Steven said: “The Judge found that Mrs Habberfield had kept her side of the bargain and to compensate her for the detriment she had suffered over the years she was awarded £1.17m, a cash equivalent to her interest in the farm.
“I am sure there will be many more similar cases of proprietary estoppel in the years to come. It is good to know that those who have given up years of time, effort and potential income can still gain redress when they have been potentially disinherited.”
Stevens colleague Craig Ridge, partner in our disputed probate team, said the case highlighted the danger of relying on verbal agreements in inheritance matters.
“This case serves as a stark warning of how verbal arrangements can result in long-running and potentially costly legal arguments.
“When making any arrangements regarding succession, it is vital to consult a lawyer who can provide expert advice to help safeguard the future of your farming business in precisely the way that you want.”
For more advice contact Steven on 01743 266268 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Craig on 01902 392402 or email@example.com