Promises, Promises…

If you are in the position that a clear promise was made to you during your lifetime in respect of either property or assets, the case of Habberfield v Habberfield [2018] EWHC 317 (Ch) may offer you some assistance.

In this case, the High Court granted the youngest daughter of a Somerset farmer a substantial cash payment of £1.17 million in lieu of her rightful share of her Deceased father’s farm. This case emphasises the importance of written evidence should an individual renege in their Will on a promise made during their lifetime.

Habberfield v Habberfield

The Facts

This case concerned Woodrow Farm, which belonged to Frank Habberfield and his wife Jane. The farm was operated by both Frank and Jane in partnership, and was held jointly by the parties until Frank’s death in 2014, when the title passed to Jane. In any event, Frank left a Will leaving Jane his entire £2.5 million estate.

The couple had four children, the youngest of whom, Lucy, had worked on the farm since her childhood. At the time of Frank’s death, Lucy claimed that her father had promised her that she would take over the farm upon his retirement, and had held this belief for a significant period.

The Claim

Lucy subsequently brought a claim against Frank’s estate in Proprietary Estoppel claiming the entire farm. Lucy also brought a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 claiming that she had not been adequately provided for under Frank’s Will.

Jane opposed Lucy’s claim on the grounds that neither she nor Frank had ever made any promises to Lucy in respect of the farm and, even if Frank had made such a promise, Jane argued that this promise could not be considered binding upon her. Jane also denied that any such promises could amount to Proprietary Estoppel as Lucy had exaggerated her work on the farm and had received other benefits from the farm in the past.

Lucy’s argument mainly rested on a letter written in 2008 from a surveyor, which detailed plans for Lucy to increase her interest in the farming operation, and, upon the deaths of her parents, Lucy would become the beneficial owner of the farm.

At trial, Judge Birss determined that this letter was written evidence of Lucy’s parents contemplating passing the farm to her and reflected the promises they had made to her in return for her on-going commitment to the farm. The letter also confirmed their intention to pass further property to Lucy’s siblings.

Judge Birss held that Lucy had sufficiently proved her claim to the farm, though only to the extent that she was entitled to a significant part of the farm (45%) rather than the whole property. The Judge was reluctant to split the farm up, partly for business reasons, but also because Jane would be forced to leave. It was however directed that Jane pay Lucy the cash equivalent of her interest in the farm, which was approximately £1.17 million.

How Nelsons can help

For more advice or information on subjects discussed above, please contact a member of our Inheritance Disputes team on 0800 024 1976 or via our online form.

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