Family torn apart by inheritance dispute over farm

17th June 2015

Does your will really reflect your wishes and is it up to date? The damage which an acrimonious dispute over the terms of a will can cause could be both long-lasting and deeply felt, as one Welsh family is now discovering.

Following a four day trial at Port Talbot Justice Centre in Wales, the eldest of five siblings was awarded the family farm and £68,000 in legal costs from his brothers but says relationships within the family ‘will take a long time to recover’.

James Davies worked with his father on the family farm, for what he described as a pittance, for many years in return for the promise that he would one day inherit the farm which had been in the family for generations. After his father died, he was shocked to discover that he had in fact only been given a right to use the farm until he reached the age of 60, at which time the farm was to be split equally amongst the five siblings. The promises made by James’ father were not reflected in the will and a bitter dispute followed.

There was conflicting evidence, from James on one side who detailed the ‘tough life’ he endured in return for the promise of inheriting the farm and from his brothers (the executors of the estate) on the other, who were not aware of any such promise and noted they were simply trying to administer the estate in the way set out in their father’s will.

If the will had reflected what James argued was his father’s intention, to leave the farm to James outright, the dispute, which was so acrimonious that it could not be settled outside a court, could have been avoided. The court considered the history of James’ work on the farm and the extent to which he had acted to his detriment in relying on the promises made. It ruled in James’ favour after determining that, on the evidence presented, it would be ‘unconscionable to deny James the farm’.

It is of course unfortunate that family disputes such as this occur, but it is even more unfortunate that no resolution could be found outside court, which no doubt widened the rift between the family and increased the parties’ costs all round. The defendant brothers were ordered to pay £68,000 towards James’s legal costs and they would, of course, also have had their own costs to pay..

Where disputes arise over a will or an estate, it is generally in the interests of all concerned for the dispute to be settled as early as possible. Not only can this save legal costs all round but it can also avoid an adversarial court hearing, which will almost always put further strain on family relationships. Appropriate legal advice at the right time can help determine whether a negotiated settlement is achievable.

This case also shows just how important it is to have a will in place, to ensure it is up to date and that it accurately reflects your wishes. Had the farm been gifted to James under his father’s will, the dispute and its consequences could have been avoided.

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