A promise to make a gift to someone could be legally enforceable, if the person to whom the promise is made relies on it to their detriment. This concept is known as proprietary estoppel. The latest case on the topic, involving the Moore family, does not provide any new law but it is a useful reminder to farmers and other business owners of how the courts could interpret promises which are made.
In this case, Stephen Moore brought a claim against his father, Roger, who had promised the family farm to him on more than 12 occasions. Stephen had worked on the family farm since childhood, had progressed his way up to being an equity partner in the business and had based his entire life around the family farm. Stephen farmed in partnership with his father and uncle (who left the partnership around 5 years previously). Following his uncle’s departure from the partnership, the court heard evidence as to how Roger’s mental state declined due to the onset of dementia.
The court found that it was in fact Stephen’s mother who had driven the litigation forward and had taken advantage of her husband’s ever declining mental state as she felt that his plans for the future of the farm were unfair to their daughter. The court acknowledged there was strong evidence that Roger made a number of promises to Stephen, and that he had relied on these promises, assuming that the land and farming business would one day become his. The detriment to Stephen came when his father and mother changed their wills, to address what his mother said were the inequalities between the inheritance that he and his sister would receive, effectively preventing Stephen inheriting what had been promised to him.
The court found in Stephen’s favour and decided that the business assets and the land (including the farmhouse) should be transferred into the his sole name; these assets totalled around £10 million. His parents were only entitled to what they would have received if the current arrangement had continued until their deaths.
While these sorts of cases are very much fact specific and it is not likely that the decision itself will be appealed, assessing quantum to remedy the inequity is always difficult and so it would not be surprising if Stephen’s parents appealed against the quantum of the award in this case.
For more information on this or any other related matter please contact Louisa Butcher on Tel: +(44)(0)1603 693453 Email: Louisa.Butcher@mills-reeve.com or David Catchpole on Tel: +(44)(0)1603 693383 Email: David.Catchpole@mills-reeve.com