Solicitors warn making inheritance promises without a Will can destroy families

Private sector legal professionals are warning clients that ‘promises are not enough’ when it comes to farm inheritance as it could tear families apart if a Will is not written.

Farming families have been advised on how they can avoid a costly inheritance battle by stressing the importance of making a will – and not making ‘verbal promises’.

The stark warning has been brought about after a recent High Court case saw a son bring a proprietary estoppel action against his father and brother.

The son claimed he was frequently told he would inherit the £8 million family farm which he had worked on since the 1970s.

However, his father consequently changed his mind and gave it to his other son who was a property developer.

The principle of the property legal claim has a wide field, even in its basic form, it can be appealed where, for example, someone has received an assurance of an inheritance and they have acted upon that assurance to their detriment, only to find that the person who made the assurance later goes back on their word.

The Court has a range of options if the appeal is successful whereby they make the original assurance at their own discretion.

Elizabeth Armstrong, a member of Latimer Hinks Solicitors’ Farms and Estates team said the case is an example of how the question of property inheritance can tear farming families apart.“If you are going to make any promises over inheritance, take legal advice and ensure you make a Will which accurately reflects your wishes. If you do change your mind, it is crucial to ensure that your Will is updated,” she said.

“It’s also a good idea, if you can, to discuss your intentions with anyone who may expect to inherit. Succession planning is key which involves wills and partnership agreements being put in place and regularly reviewed/revisited particularly if and as circumstances change.”

In the latest dispute, the Oxfordshire farmer, who was supported by his mother, won the case against his father and brother.

Rosanne Tweddle, property solicitor in the Farms and Estates team added: “It’s possible that discussing your wishes could instigate a proprietary estoppel claim but it is more likely to avoid unnecessary anguish and expensive and divisive legal action.

“Making lifetime promises or assurances to family members and beneficiaries can be very risky indeed, particularly if your Will doesn’t follow through on what you might have said.

“If you have made any assurances during your lifetime but have later changed your mind, it’s a good idea to discuss the reasons for that with the person concerned, so that any risk of a proprietary estoppel claim after your death can be minimised.”

Ms Tweddle added: “As land values increase, more proprietary estoppel cases, typically involving farms, are coming before the courts. It is important that farming clients draw up a clear plan of what they intend to achieve, and the reasons behind it.”

As a private client professional, have you noticed an increased trend of proprietary estoppel claims? What is your opinion of such cases? What steps or measures do you feel could be put in place when dealing with farming clients?

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