Will dispute specialists at UK law firm Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth are emphasising the importance of written evidence in land and farming disputes in the absence of a valid will.
This was prompted after a High Court ruling in a proprietary estoppel farming dispute, where a farmer's daughter was awarded £1.17 million equal to the value of farmland and farm buildings.
The judge ruled that Lucy Habberfield had been promised a significant part of the £2.5 million farm after her father, Frank Habberfield, died in 2014, but her mother Jane Habberfield contested the claim, saying she and her late husband had made no such promises.
The judge held much of the strength of the claimant’s argument on written evidence from a surveyor, of the parents contemplating passing the farm to their daughter which only reflected the assurances they had been giving her in return for her long-term commitment to the farm.
Whilst warning that a valid will should be drawn up as early as possible and reviewed upon significant changes to the family circumstances, Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth also warned that when significant assets are involved – not only personal ones, like property, but also commercial ones, it is as important to formulate a succession plan for the business.
James Laycock, a partner in the will, trust and estates disputes team at Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth, said: “Proprietary estoppel claims are often tricky because when it comes to farming disputes, there’s rarely such a compelling piece of written evidence which supports one party’s argument over the other party.”
“Without this type of critical documentary evidence, the Court is often left having to determine these types of cases largely on the evidence of the witnesses - much of which is rarely neutral."
Mr Laycock continued: “We would advise anyone who is in this situation to draw up a will and to regularly update it if there are significant life events, such as a divorce or a death in the family.
“We also encourage parties to consider and implement a succession structure to ensure that cases such as this one do not end up tearing a family and all its hard-earned assets apart.”
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