Inheritance Disputes - Costs Risks Can Be Reduced

Arguments about what someone promised before their death can lead to significant legal costs. However, if faced with a claim against the estate, there may be steps the beneficiaries or executors can take to reduce the risks, as a recent High Court case illustrated.

A man had left a farmhouse and agricultural land in Cornwall to his wife, with whom he had also jointly owned a neighbouring area of land. After his death, one of the couple's daughters and her husband claimed that he had told them he wanted them to move nearby so they could learn the farming business. According to them, he had assured them that the farm would one day be theirs because he wanted it to stay in the family for future generations. They said that they had moved from Guildford to Cornwall in reliance on that promise.

The man's wife, who was also the executor of his estate, denied that any such promise had been made, and said that it was unclear exactly what land was supposed to have been included in the promise. She applied for summary judgment and argued that, if her application were refused, the refusal should be conditional on the daughter and son-in-law paying funds into court.

Calling the case 'a tragedy for all concerned' because of the family divisions and the projected costs involved, the Court observed that this was not a case where the claimants had worked on the farm for many years, giving up the opportunity to pursue careers elsewhere. It also noted that the farm was small and could not support a family: the man had worked as an airline pilot, the income from his job allowing the farm to keep running.

The Court ruled that the claim had more than a fanciful prospect of success, and therefore summary judgment could not be granted. Concluding that the claim was unlikely to succeed, however, the Court made the refusal conditional on the daughter and son-in-law giving charges over assets or alternatively paying £331,230 into court, within four weeks of its judgment. A stay was ordered so that the parties could attempt mediation.