Success for farmer's daughter in proprietary estoppel case

The High Court has ordered that the daughter of a Yeovil farmer will receive a significant cash payment in lieu of her promised share of the family farm.

Woodrow Farm in Yeovil was owned by Frank Habberfield and his wife Jane Habberfield. They purchased the farm in 1961.The total value of the farm, including the farming business, was approximately £2.5 million.

Frank Habberfield died in April 2014. Jane and Frank held the farm as beneficial joint tenants and therefore ownership of the farm passed to Jane upon Frank’s death.

The couple had a son and three daughters. The youngest daughter, Lucy Habberfield, had worked on Woodrow Farm since the 1980’s when she left school. Lucy’s partner, Stuart Parker had also worked on the farm since 2007.

Lucy brought a court action in proprietary estoppel claiming that her father had promised that she would take over the farm after he retired. Lucy alleged that she had relied upon her father’s promise to her detriment by devoting her life to the farm and consequently that she was entitled to ownership of the farm. As a fall back, Lucy also brought an action under the Inheritance (Provision for Families and Dependants) Act 1975 (“the Inheritance Act”).

Jane defended the court action on the grounds that neither she nor Frank had made such promises. Jane contented that even if such promises were made, that Lucy had exaggerated her evidence regarding the work that she had carried out on the farm and that she had received significant benefits in the form of rent free accommodation and free childcare.

Lucy relied upon a letter sent in 2008 from Frank and Jane’s surveyor regarding a proposal whereby Lucy would own the Farm after the couple’s death.

The Judge ordered that Lucy had proved her claim in proprietary estoppel but that she was only entitled to receive a proportion of the farm, not all of it. He therefore made an order that Lucy would receive just over £1.1 million which was 45% of the value of the farm.

Due to Lucy’s success with the proprietary estoppel claim, the court were not required to consider the Inheritance Act claim.

Proprietary estoppel cases are very fact specific. Once a proprietary estoppel has been established, the court must then assess the appropriate remedy to award. The court has a broad discretion in this regard and will make an award to the Claimant according to what is just and equitable in the circumstances.

Proprietary estoppel claims arising in the context of an inheritance dispute or otherwise carry a degree of uncertainty. It is therefore essential that legal advice is sought in relation to such claims at an early stage.

If you require advice concerning a proprietary estoppel claim, or a will dispute or would like to discuss any contentious probate query please do not hesitate to contact our contentious probate team on 01902 424927. Alternatively, you can e-mail us at providing a brief summary of the issues you wish to discuss with us, along with your contact details. In many cases, we can offer funding on a No Win No Fee basis.