A judgment by the Court of Appeal illustrates that when someone dies without making it clear who should inherit their estate, this can result in a prolonged court battle and an outcome that may be very different from what the deceased person intended and which, to most, would seem very unfair.

In 2007, the High Court ruled that a farmer who helped a relative run his farm for more than 20 years should be awarded the property. David Thorner started helping his cousin, Peter Thorner, run his 400 acre farm in Somerset when Peter began to suffer from ill health. What was at first a temporary measure became a lifetime of commitment, as David spent the next 25 years working on the farm without taking a holiday and sometimes working up to 18 hours a day. He was never paid for his work, only receiving a modest allowance from his parents.

Peter Thorner revoked a will he had made in 1997, in order to exclude one of the beneficiaries, and never made another. The will had left the farm and most of his estate to David. On Peter’s death in 2005, as no will could be found, the laws of intestacy applied. In such cases, the estate passes to the nearest relatives.

In the High Court, David argued that the two men had an understanding that, on Peter’s death, David would inherit the farm and it would therefore be unfair to divide the estate according to the intestacy laws. The Court was satisfied that his cousin intended him to have the property and awarded him the farm and the agricultural assets. Non-agricultural assets of approximately £1m were awarded to Peter’s relatives.

Two of Peter’s sisters and a niece appealed against this decision and three appeal judges have now ruled that although David had a ‘strong moral claim’ regarding the property, the claim should not have been upheld and it would be a ‘dangerous precedent’ for him to inherit the property. Whatever Peter Thorner’s wishes were, there was no evidence that he had made a firm promise to David that he would inherit the farm.

Accordingly, the estate passed according to the laws of intestacy to the other relatives, a result which seems unfair. Unfortunately for Mr Thorner, the law often produces results which do not seem fair.

Permission to appeal to the House of Lords was refused and David Thorner was ordered to pay legal costs.