Mother Knows Best: son loses 4 year legal battle with his mother over £6m estate

9th April 2020 Will Disputes

A recent case has seen a mother and son go head to head in court over an estate worth approximately £6m, of which the mother argued she was entitled to £2.5m as a retiring partner of the families farming partnership.

Davis Horsford and Marion Horsford were married until their divorce in 2011, and have 3 children: a son, Peter Horsford, and 2 daughters.

In 2016, Mrs Horsford sought to retire from the family farming partnership, of which Peter was also a member. Mrs Horsford valued her share in the partnership at £2.52m and asked for Peter to pay this out of the partnership, with the intention to leave the money to her 2 daughters. Peter had already substantially benefitted financially from the profits of the partnership and was gifted the farmhouse to live in years earlier by his mother. Peter, however, argued that promises had been made that he would inherit the entire farming business when his parents died and therefore Mrs Horsford was not entitled to a “single penny” for her share.

During the trial, Peter suggested that he had given up his life to work on the farm and should receive everything from the partnership. He dismissed his mother’s claim and maintained that his mother was already wealthy enough and that she had ‘reneged on her lifetime of assurances’ after she divorced his father in 2011, which he had relied upon since a very young age. Peter pleaded with the judge that he had been 'groomed” since he was a schoolboy to eventually take over the farm from his father. Mrs Horsford accepted that she may have made promises about her share in the partnership going to her son but it was always her intention for the three children to be treated equally. Peter’s father was unable to comment at the hearing on any promises made due to suffering from dementia.

Judge Rosen explained in his ruling that he needed to deal with “questions as to the partnership and of fairness and equality as between the three siblings”. In his judgment, Rosen placed significant emphasis on the fact that Peter had not worked on the farm “to his detriment” and had actually profited immensely, both financially, and by living in the Farmhouse worth over £2m - “Peter had benefited substantially from the choice he made to farm with his parents and all that followed.” The Judge also found that the entries Mrs Horsford had made in her diary over the years showed that she had never lost sight of her desire to treat all her children equally.

The court ruled that any promises made in the past which Peter claimed to have relied upon were not legally binding and the court ordered Peter to pay his mother £2.52m, even if that meant that the farm would need to be sold.

This case highlights the difficulties that can arise where family businesses do not have formal written agreements, with the courts seeing a steep rise in proprietary estoppel cases involving the family farming industry in particular. Seeking legal advice at an early stage can go a long way in reaching an agreed resolution between family members and as such preserving some form of relationship between the parties and significant reducing the costs, time and stress that follows with court proceedings. Such disputes by their very nature inevitably will cause a significant breakdown in family relationships, not to mention the substantial legal costs to the family estate that has often been built over multiple generations. Whilst it appears to have been Mrs Horsford’s intention to treat her children equally, it would not be surprising to find that a knock on effect of these proceedings by her son would be that she now takes steps to exclude him from benefitting from her estate altogether within her will, which may mean he incurs further legal costs in any challenge he chooses to pursue an against her estate on death. Perhaps he would have been better advised to accept an equal share with his siblings and maintain family harmony rather than to litigate with his own mother, who clearly “knew best”.

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Alex Streeter is a Trainee Solicitor located in Manchesterin our Trainee Solicitors department

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