Down on the Farm. Part One: the out of time inheritance claim
It could be argued that farming disputes have progressed the law of contentious trusts and probate in a similar way that shipping disputes have shaped contract law. The elements are usually all present in the case law. The protagonists work hard and feel strong ties to the land. There are familial disputes which pit generation against generation, which often take the form of business or partnership disputes between parents and their children. Sibling rivalry is also often a factor.
The case of Sargeant –v-Sargeant 2018 EWHC 8 Ch
This case contained all of the above elements and was brought by a farmer’s widow. She claimed against his estate for reasonable financial provision under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975.
The claim was made outside of the period of six months from the date on which the grant of representation was made on her late husband’s estate. This meant permission was required from the court to make the claim.
His Honour Judge David Cooke referred to the leading case of Re. Salmon 1981 CH 169 and noted that the claimant had “at least an arguable claim… of substantial value”. The value of the estate was sworn at just over £3.2 million, but the land value increased to at least £8 million due to outline planning permission for housing. Not much appears to have been made of that fact in the case but it might have been be an important motivation in bringing the claim.
The deceased left a discretionary trust to his wife and their daughter (who was also the defendant), and her children. The claimant’s son was left out of the will and it was suggested by the defendant that he may have been a “driving force” behind the claim.
The claimant had started to run out of money and made her inheritance claim for reasonable financial provision in excess of 10 years after the grant of probate. She said that she did not understand the terms of the discretionary trust, the fact that it did not make adequate financial provision for her and that she was not advised until much later that she may make a claim. Part of the decision in Re. Salmon was that it was material to consider how promptly, and in what circumstances, the claims were brought outside of the time limit.
The defendant put forward the other authoritative case of Berger –v- Berger 2014
WTLR35 which involved a claim brought by a widow six years after the grant of probate. In that case the Court of Appeal refused permission to bring the claim because it was apparent on the evidence that the widow had known for some years that she was in financial difficulties but nevertheless delayed in taking advice as she was reluctant to disturb family arrangements.
In the Sargeant case the claimant had been advised that the estate was asset rich and cash poor and that land would have to be sold in order to free up money for her benefit. She was reluctant to sell land on the basis neither she nor her defendant daughter wanted this to happen. The judge said that this showed that she had been aware of the circumstances for several years and had received advice upon them.
Whilst it is true that she was not explicitly advised that she might consider a claim under the Act of 1975, she was advised on several occasions that if she wished she should seek such advice. She had therefore not made a sufficient case to bring her claim out of time. It is also significant to note the judge said that he had made a reasonable inference that she had not told the truth in evidence where that evidence conflicted with that of the family’s own solicitor. For these reasons, and the very extensive delay, the court was not willing to give permission to allow the claimant to bring her claim out of time.
The moral of this story is to of course seek prompt and specialist legal advice as soon as you are able, and to be completely straightforward and truthful in your evidence to have the best chance of getting permission to make an inheritance claim. Even better of course, would be to bring inheritance claims within the six month time limit to save the necessary separate hearing and associated legal costs.
Next time… Down on the Farm- Part 2- the promise that never was