Estate dispute: Permission to appeal refused in recent farming case

The Court of Appeal has recently rejected a businessman’s final legal claim to inherit his parents’ farm in Wales.

The case of McDonald v Rose 2019 was a probate dispute concerning the estates of the married couple Marlene McDonald and Liam McDonald who died in 2010 and 2013 respectively. A dispute arose between their children about how their estates should be distributed.

The couples’ son, Gary McDonald made a proprietary estoppel claim alleging that he was promised the lion’s share of the estate assets if he continued to work on the family farm. He claimed that he had carried out work on the farm in detrimental reliance upon such promises. There was a significant amount of evidence which conflicted with Gary McDonald’s assertions which suggested that the parents, in fact, intended to split their estates equally between all of their children.

The evidence of Gary McDonald’s wife of assurances given by the parents that “ he [Gary] would be looked after” certainly didn’t help his case.

Gary McDonald contended that his parents had given assurances along the lines of "stick with it and this will be your reward". The Judge in his own words stated that "in a very real sense he did not stick with it". Indeed, while Gary continued to work unpaid for his parents at evenings and weekends and returned to work for them over long hours with little pay in between jobs, he found employment once he settled down with a family and he built up his own successful business from 2006.

The High Court (at first instance) rejected Gary McDonald’s proprietary estoppel claim and the decision was based largely on the findings of fact made from the considerable number of witnesses giving evidence.

Gary appealed the decision and his application was made outside the required time limit. The Court of Appeal refused to grant permission to appeal but it published a Judgment explaining why permission was refused. The Court of Appeal agreed with the reasoning of the High Court Judge and the fact that all of the evidence weighed against Gary McDonald and concluded that the promises probably hadn’t been made in the terms claimed by Gary McDonald.

Our contentious probate solicitors say that “McDonald v Rose was not a classic proprietary estoppel farming claim. Proprietary estoppel claims in farming matters more frequently arise where a farmer works for their whole adult life on the farm for little salary or other reward. Gary McDonald was a businessman who restricted his farming work to focus on his own business projects.

Proprietary estoppel claims are common in the context of probate disputes and estate disputes and can, in some cases, offer an alternative to challenging a will or to an inheritance dispute.

If you would like more information about proprietary estoppel claims or if you would like to discuss contesting a will or defending a will dispute, please do not hesitate to contact our specialist team on 01902 424927 for an initial free consultation. We can often act for clients on a no win no fee basis.