The English High Court has recently found that a father could not change his Will so as to prevent his son receiving sole ownership of a family farm. [1] The farm had been promised to the son over the course of many years. It was held that these promises created an equitable interest in the farm and the father was now estopped from denying the son's entitlement. The case serves as an example of when the Court will be willing to find an equitable interest in assets.

Background

Since 2008, Manor Farm in Wiltshire (the "Farm") had been run as a partnership by Stephen Moore and Stephen's father, Roger Moore. Prior to that, the partnership was between Roger and Roger's brother, Geoffrey. Geoffrey retired in 2008 and gave his share in the partnership to Stephen. Stephen had assisted on the Farm from a young age and had been groomed to take over the business and the Farm from Roger. It was Stephen's case that he had been promised repeatedly during this time that the Farm would one day be his.

In 2008, Roger began showing early signs of dementia and his health consistently deteriorated. By late 2012 Roger's dementia was moderate to severe and the Court commented that it doubted Roger could have played much part in driving the litigation forward. Alongside Roger's deteriorating health, Roger's and Stephen's relationship deteriorated and Roger revised his Will in 2012 removing Stephen as the beneficiary of Roger's interest the Farm. Stephen applied to the Court for a declaration that Roger could not change the terms of his Will to prevent him from receiving sole ownership of the Farm (this is despite the fact that a Will only speaks from death and Roger was still alive).

Judgment

The Court accepted Stephen's assertion that he was promised the Farm from an early age. The Court noted that in deciding this, the key question was "whether by words and acts it would reasonably have been conveyed to Stephen an assurance that he would inherit". The Court found on the facts such assurance would have been conveyed and it had been plain for years Stephen was being groomed to take over the Farm.

The Court held that Stephen had relied on the promise because he had spent his entire life on the Farm without any thought as to other employment. Such reliance was to the detriment of Stephen, for example because he had long working hours on the Farm for little pay, which he would not have been the case in alternative employment. Further, it would have been unconscionable to go back on the promise. The Court thus accepted Stephen's entitlement to an equitable interest in Roger's share of the Farm. The Court further ordered the partnership be dissolved due to Roger's lack of capacity.

Comment

The case serves as an example of when the Court will be willing to find an equitable interest in assets, with the finding of such interest being heavily fact dependent. It should be noted that the case did not turn on Roger's lack of capacity. Instead, Roger was estopped from amending his Will because he had promised the Farm to Stephen and Stephen relied on such promise to his detriment.