An Oxfordshire farmer has won a High Court case against his father over a dispute about the inheritance of an £8m estate.
John Michael Gee, 60, began working on the family farm in Cumnor in the 1970s and remained there until 2016, working long hours for low wages under the belief he would inherit the lion’s share of the farm.
His father, John Richard Gee, is in his early 80s and inherited the arable farm in 1992. Married to Pamela, the couple have two other children, Robert and Jeanne.
The company’s 24,000 shares were owned almost entirely by John Richard Gee and in 2014 he transferred all his property and land holdings to Robert, a developer.
Challenging this decision, John Michael Gee brought the proprietary estoppel case against his father and his brother, claiming that, from the age of 30, he had been repeatedly assured he would inherit the farm, and he relied on those representations to his detriment and devoted his working life to the farm.
Proprietary estoppel explained
This law can be used by a person who claims a promise or assurance was made to them in the past about the inheritance or likely inheritance of a property.
The claimant must show the assurance was made and that they had relied on that assurance to their detriment.
He was backed by his mother, who transferred her share of the land and her single share in the company to him.
Pamela Gee gave evidence supporting the claimant against her husband, saying there was always an expectation he would take over the running of the farm.
John Richard Gee denied this entirely and stated he believed the claimant to be a bad farmer, and had decided Robert was better placed to run the 214ha farm.
The case came to trial at the Bristol Civil Justice Centre for six days in April and was heard by judge Mr Justice Birss.
Mr Justice Birss accepted John Michael Gee did act to his detriment in reliance on the representations from his father, which included being assured he would take on ownership of the farm one day and stating he could build on the estate “when it’s yours”.
He ruled in favour of the claimant and said the next task was to consider an appropriate remedy. The exact division of the farming assets will be decided in a second hearing later this summer.
Leslie Blohm QC and Robert James, specialist agriculture litigator at Thrings, advised the claimant.
“This was a particularly pleasing result and we are glad we could assist the claimant with getting what he was promised,” said Mr James.
“The claimant devoted his entire adult and working life to the family farm, and based his life on the expectation of being able to pass it on to the next generation.
“It is clear how the court came to the conclusion that he did satisfy the requisite legal hurdle, and any other outcome would be unjust.”
Advice on how to avoid proprietary estoppel claims from Russell Reeves, agricultural partner at Thrings
- Unless you mean it, do not say it
- If you do mean it and say it, put it clearly in writing and take tax planning and legal advice – it could save you money
- Set out in writing the terms upon which your children are working with you or for you – for example, in a partnership deed or contract of employment
- If you feel comfortable doing so, take the time to clarify your intentions with anyone who might be expecting to inherit from you. While on the one hand this may prompt a proprietary estoppel claim being brought, on the other it might just defuse the situation (it is good to talk) and it might minimise the value of the claim
- Ensure you make a will and that it properly reflects your intentions. Update it if you change your mind