A promise is a promise!

A recent High Court case illustrates the potential problems that can arise where there is an unwritten agreement within the family over the distribution of someone’s estate.

This is the latest in a long line of cases involving a family feud over the estate of a deceased relative after promises had been made verbally by father to his son which were not confirmed in writing. Many cases (including this one) are about the family farm.

In this case the father had, in the 1970’s when the son was only 17 years old, asked him to abandon his ambition to become a policeman and, instead, to stay at home and help run the family farm. This he did, and he continued to farm the land until  his father died in 1999 and for another 13 years after that until he reached 60 years of age.

On the father’s death the terms of his will were not made known to the all family but it provided that the son should be allowed to continue farming until he reached 60 years of age and that the farm should then be sold and the proceeds divided between all the children. The son carried on farming until his 60th birthday at which point the terms of the will were revealed to him. Unsurprisingly, he was very unhappy and a dispute arose.

The son claimed that his father had always promised that he would leave the farm to him on his death and that in reliance on that promise he had worked for more than 20 years on very low wages which he only accepted because he expected eventually to inherit the farm. The rest of the family denied that any such promise had been made and the end result was a four-day court hearing involving factual disputes and recriminations.

The court eventually ruled in favour of the farmer son, awarding him the farm and ordering the other family members to pay his costs of more than £60,000. In addition to that they will all have their own costs to meet. If the decision is appealed further costs will be incurred.

The moral of the story? Well there are several…..

Don’t make promises you don’t intend to keep because you may be held to them.

If a promise is made to you verbally and you intend to act to your detriment because of it (such as in this case by working for a pittance for many years) then go and see a Solicitor and get it agreed in writing.

See a Solicitor and make a Will. Make sure you tell the family what it says. Better to deal with difficult issues while you are still alive than to leave the family to fight over them after you have gone.

This is not an isolated case.  These situations happen all the time and often cause family fall outs.  We come across them several times every year. Most are settled without the need to go to Court but they are still costly and the bad feeling can result in permanent estrangement.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.

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