Partial success for farmer’s daughter in proprietary estoppal claim

The England and Wales High Court has granted the youngest daughter of a farmer a substantial cash payment in lieu of her rightful share of the family farm.

The 200 acre Woodrow Farm near Yeovil belonged to Frank Habberfield and his wife Jane. The holding (including the farming business, land, buildings and farmhouse) was worth about £2 million in 2017. The farm was operated by Frank and Jane as a partnership until Frank died, at which stage ownership of the properties passed automatically to Jane. Frank had, in any case, left a Will leaving his entire estate to Jane.

Frank and Jane had a son and three daughters. The youngest, Lucy, had worked on the farm full time since leaving school in 1983. Since 2007 her partner had also worked full time on the farm. Now aged 50, Lucy claimed her father assured her she would take the farm over when he retired. She therefore brought an action in proprietary estoppel claiming the whole property. Prior to Lucy’s claim there had already been arguments and litigation amongst family members about what benefits Lucy and her partner ought to be receiving from the business for their work.

Jane opposed her daughter’s claim on the grounds that neither she nor Frank had ever made such promises to Lucy. Even if Frank had made such a promise without Jane’s knowledge, it could not be binding on Jane. Jane also claimed Lucy had exaggerated her work on the farm and had received some benefits from it anyway.

A key piece of evidence was a letter written in 2008 from a surveyor employed by Frank and Jane recording a proposal to be put to Lucy for a new limited partnership to run the business and that Lucy should end up being the owner of the overall farm after her parents’ deaths, with some of the property to go to her siblings.

The judge found that Lucy had proved her claim, though only to the extent that she was entitled to a significant part of the farm (about 45%), rather than all of it. The judge was reluctant to divide the farm property, for business reasons and also because Jane would have to leave her home. The judge ordered Jane to pay Lucy the cash equivalent of her interest in the farm (valuated at £1.7 million a year ago), although he left it to the family to try and agree the actual figure.

Lindsey Sharples is a solicitor in the private client team at Barker Gotelee, Solicitors in Ipswich.

This article first appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times, 1st April 2018.

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