Promises, promises…

Nick Palmer

When is a promise legally binding?  Generally, a promise is not binding, but if you make a promise and somebody else relies on it, and acts to their disadvantage, the Court may make you keep your promise.  This is the legal principle of estoppel.

There have been a number of cases involving farmers, where the son works for his father for low wages for many years, relying on the promise that he will inherit.  What if father does not keep his promise?

Frank Suggitt was divorced and had four children. When he died, he owned three properties, 413 acres of farmland and £140,000 cash.

He died in 2009 and left all his estate to one of his daughters, Caroline.

However, his son, John, claimed his father had promised he would inherit the farm and, relying on this promise, John had worked for years on his father’s farm for less than a full market wage.  In April, the Court decided in John’s favour. The Court awarded John his father’s farm and the most expensive of the three properties. Caroline lost the bulk of her inheritance.

The surprising aspect of this decision is the Court’s willingness to overrule the terms of Frank’s Will where the evidence was not especially strong.

One might expect that the promise should be clear, emphatic and repeated often. John said his father told him: ‘no farmer pays their son as it will all be theirs one day’ and ‘you can do what you want when the farm is yours’ in support of his claim. Perhaps these might have been throw-away comments, but in the context of the other evidence the Court felt these statements represented a promise by Frank to leave his farm to John.

Had John really suffered a disadvantage? Frank gave John somewhere to live, fed him, paid his living expenses, paid his college fees, gave him a share of the farm income, and also allowed John to set up, run and keep all the profits from his own herd of beef cattle on Frank’s farmland. Despite all of this, the Court still felt that John acted to his detriment in not taking a full market wage for working on the farm, and that he did so because Frank had promised him the farm. Thus the promise became binding.

This may astonish many farming families and indeed owners of other family businesses where children are expected to help out. A combination of particular circumstances and the immortal words ‘one day all of this will be yours’ and you may have just made your Will…

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