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Land Worth Millions Of Pounds Locked In Battles Over Challenged Wills

Agricultural land worth millions of pounds is being disputed across the country because the significant rise in land values over the past decade has led to an increase in the number of disputes over Wills and inheritance in industry.

Specialist Wills trusts and estate disputes lawyers at Irwin Mitchell are warning that estates, businesses and land worth millions of pounds are being unnecessarily tied up in bitter family feuds because of a lack of valid Wills in the sector.

Statistics released by DEFRA in June this year also revealed that only around a third (37%) of farm businesses had a nominated successor.

Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth says most problems occur when people have had more than one marriage and may have children by more than one partner. Other common claims in the agricultural sector arise where children have worked for a small wage on the farm property for a number of years on the understanding that they will inherit the land and business on the death of their parent – only to find out that the intestacy rules or the wording of a Will often cut them out of the estate.

The diversification away from pure farming can also make disputes more complicated with resolutions often including selling off some of the farming assets such as workers’ cottages or converting barns while properties are often swapped around between siblings too

Julia Burns, a lawyer at Irwin Mitchell specialising in resolving disputes regarding Wills, said: “Because of the nature of the work, most farming estates involve a great deal of land which can mean the estates are of high value. But as well as land there can also be issues relating to agricultural tenancies, grazing licences, milk quotas and single farm payments making these cases complex to resolve.

“Farmers frequently want to keep the estate, including both the land and the farming business, in the family but we are finding that many people are not making valid Wills which means that once they die their estate follows the intestacy rules and may not pass to those who they intended it to.”

A recent Court of Appeal case highlighted some of the common issues that farm owners face and Irwin Mitchell say it acts as a reminder to the industry to ensure they seek appropriate legal advice regarding Wills and inheritance.

Davies v Davies relates to a daughter who worked on her family’s farm in Carmarthenshire for little or no wage for several years. Her parents regularly told her that she would inherit the farm and she was shown a draft Will which stated she would inherit a majority stake.

However, the draft Wills were amended after a disagreement which meant that she would only inherit an equal share with her sisters. The parents brought a claim against their daughter to evict her from the farmhouse, while the daughter claimed an interest in the farm which was based on her reliance on her discussions with her parents.

Julia Burns said: “Broken promises and disappointed beneficiaries are not uncommon in the farming world. In our experience, these cases cause major family rifts and can also have a financial impact on the viability of a farm.

“Normally these claims arise if a person has died and a claim can be made in two scenarios. The first would be if a promise is made which a potential beneficiary then relies on to their detriment. For example, accepting a low wage in the expectation of inheritance at a later date.

“The second arises if a person has not been reasonably financially provided for in a Will and they are in financial need. This can lead to a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

“According to figures, land values have trebled in the past decade, meaning farms are more valuable than ever. However, the fact that money is often tied up in the land means disputes can be difficult to resolve.

“The lessons to be learned from this are twofold. Firstly, when making a Will, obtain legal advice regarding the claims which could be made on your estate and how you can avoid them. Secondly, if you have not received the inheritance you deserve, you may be able to challenge it.

“If you fall into the latter category, remember you only have six months from the date of a Grant of Probate to make a claim - so you need to act quickly.”

Irwin Mitchell Private Wealth advises that those who run an estate or are set to inherit an estate make sure that they are named in a valid Will. It’s also vital that the Will is periodically reviewed in order to ensure it is up-to-date with any changes.

Published: 20 July 2017

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