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Farm promise is upheld

Reasons to choose Wilson Browne

There is many a Will dispute over a broken promise but, it seems, few topics come up as often in such cases as promises about farms.

Indeed, just the other week I explained “proprietary estoppel” to a client using the promise of a farm as an example.

Proprietary estoppel is a legal cause of action that relies on a promise being made.  When that promise is relied upon  by someone, to their detriment, and then broken a claim for proprietary estoppel can be considered.  The claim is not as straightforward as that of course – you have to prove the promise was made, the nature of the promise has to have been clear, you have to show that there was reliance on the promise and a detriment as a result of that reliance.  When a Court looks at a claim for proprietary estoppel it will have a broad discretion as to how to achieve equity (fairness) in the outcome.

Many proprietary estoppel claims arise in relation to farms.  There have been numerous cases in the past arising from promises by parents to specific children that the farm will be theirs if they work on it for life.  Children have given up lucrative city careers to work long hours for minimum wage on farms.  And at the end of it they find their parents’ Wills leave the estate (including the farm) equally split between all the children – breaking not just the promise but many a sibling relationship in the process.

A case decided recently has shown that a claim for proprietary estoppel can succeed where there are lifelong friends involved too –  not just children of farming families.

In Wills & Wills v Sowray [2020] brothers James and Matthew Wills were lifelong friends of Anthony Sowray who owned Gilmoor Farm.  The property comprised 50 acres of land, a farmhouse and a variety of outbuildings.  It was valued at £600,000.

Anthony Sowray was estranged from his daughter Claire but made no Will. On his death his entire estate passed to her under the laws of intestacy.

James and Matthew Wills challenged this and argued that Anthony Sowray had promised them the land –  Matthew having worked at the farm and been promised the land and James , separately, having been promised the land on which he had built his home in exchange for a Jeep he had given to Anthony Sowray.

Anthony’s promises to the Wills brothers were verbal and recorded nowhere in writing though he assured James Wills that his affairs were in order.

When Anthony Sowray reconciled with his daughter he told Matthew Wills that he wanted her to have the farmhouse but made it clear that the land (with the exception of James’ plot) would be his.

After his death, Claire claimed that she had discussed business plans for the farm with her father and that he had intended for her to inherit the whole estate.

The argument put forward on behalf of James and Matthew Wills was that Anthony Sowray’s promises to them had resulted in them placing full reliance upon those for their livelihoods

and that he was not free to go back on those promises.  They asked the Court to make good on the promises Anthony Sowray had made.

Ultimately the Court found that the promises had been made as alleged – Matthew was awarded the land, James was awarded the plot on which his home sits and Claire was given the farmhouse (valued at £150,000).

Costs were awarded against Claire.

The Court decision makes good on the promises Anthony Sowray made during his lifetime to his lifelong friends.  Friends who had relied up on him and his promise.  Matthew had worked all his life on the farm and was heavily involved in it, James had built a home for himself and his family on the plot of land.  Although the outcome may have been “right” in the end, the cost and stress of getting back to where they always expected to be should not be underestimated.

And for what – the “saving” of the cost of a Will on the part of Mr Sowray?  The moral of the story?  Perhaps it is “if you care enough to make the promise, care enough to spell it out in your Will”.