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If you’re hoping to inherit a farm, it won’t help your case if you hate cows. Clive Shaw sued his parents in order to force them to let him inherit their farm but the judge found that Mr Shaw’s (reported) opinion that cows are “stinking, horrible, rotten creatures” made it unlikely that his future would be as a full-time farmer. In losing his case, the judge also ordered Mr Shaw to pay a staggering £100,000 in legal fees and gave him six weeks in which to vacate his parent’s farm.

Promised that he would inherit farm

Mr Shaw’s elderly parents, Walter and Gill, wrote their son out of their wills in 2016. Mr Shaw brought a proprietary estoppel claim, claiming that his parents were unable to renege on the promise they made that, if he continued to work on the farm, one day their business would be his. He told the court that he had spent the majority of his life working on the farm for very little financial reward because he had been promised that the business would be left to him.

In their defence, Walter and Gill argued that their son had never worked on the farm to the extent he claimed and that he frequently said to family members that he hated cows and they “made him nervous”. The parents said that they had in fact paid their son for the work he had done and, while it would have been their “biggest dream” if Mr Shaw had taken on the farm, it wasn’t a practical reality, as he disliked farming.

In his judgment, Judge John Linwood stated that “Clive was promised the farm would be his inheritance from about 1978 onwards but those assurances were conditional upon Clive working properly on the farm in the manner of a dedicated long term farmer […] However Clive was not sufficiently interested and his lifestyle choices were such that he did not want to take on the farm and dedicate himself to that as his interests were elsewhere […] Clive, I find, was never going to be the farmer Walt thought and hoped he would be and take over the running of the farm.’

The judge ultimately found that it was improbable that Walter Shaw would promise his son the land unconditionally and held that any assurance made by Walter was conditional and that Clive failed to meet the conditions.

Proprietary estoppel

A proprietary estoppel claim is typically used where someone seeks to assert a right over land where they have been given:

  1. a) An unequivocal assurance/promise;
  2. b) On which they have relied
  3. c) To their detriment
  4. d) Making it unfair for the promisor to break that promise.

If all of these elements are satisfied, the doctrine of proprietary estoppel will bite and prevent the person reneging on the assurance they have given. Even if the court concludes that relief should be granted, it does not necessarily mean that the person will get what was promised as the court will take into account the degree of detriment suffered and make an order that is proportionate in the circumstances.

Reasonable provision claim under Inheritance Act

Although Mr Shaw’s claim may have failed, as the biological child of his parents, he may still be able to bring a claim for reasonable provision from his parent’s estates on death under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. Only time will tell whether Mr Shaw has the appetite to have another bite at the cherry…

For more information about proprietary estoppel, inheritance act or contentious probate claims, please contact Kate Atkins, Associate, in our Private Client team by emailing mailto:[email protected] or calling 0117 904 5930.