Broken Promises and how the Court can Intervene

The recent case of Morton v Morton and another [2022] EWHC 163 (Ch) demonstrates the potential disputes that can arise between farming families when determining who benefits from the estate of a deceased family member.

In Morton, a dispute arose between two siblings, Julie Morton (“Julie”) and her brother, Simon Morton (“Simon”), as to the ownership of the family farm following the death of their mother, Jennifer Morton (“Mrs Morton”).

Julie and Simon's late father, Geoffrey Morton (“Mr Morton”) had accumulated a farm and various other property assets throughout his lifetime. He had owned these assets in different combinations of partnership, mostly with his wife, Mrs Morton, but also some with the Julie and/or Simon. Following Mr Morton's death, most of his property was held by Mrs Morton as the surviving joint owner. Mrs Morton subsequently made a will (“the Will”) which favoured Julie, to whom she left almost the entirety of her estate. After Mrs Morton's death, the court was also asked to consider whether Simon could rely on the principle of proprietary estoppel in respect of farmland which would otherwise be transferred to Julie under the terms of the Will.

Proprietary estoppel is a legal principle which can arise where person A makes a promise to person B that they will acquire a legal right to a particular piece of land. In reliance on that promise B undertakes to act to his detriment. In these circumstances it would then be unconscionable for A to retract his promise to B at a later date.

In the instant case Mr Morton had made promises to Simon, on behalf of himself and Mrs Morton, that he would ultimately inherit the family farming business and the farmland from which that business was conducted. Mrs Morton had known about, and approved, at least some of these assurances. In reliance of his father's promises, Simon had attended agricultural college before going on to work on the family farm.

By comparison, Julie had shown no interest in farming and had left home to follow alternative pursuits. Furthermore, the court found that both Mr Morton and Mrs Morton had made it clear to Julie and Simon that they intended to treat them equally in terms of the distribution of the farming estate following their deaths. The court therefore held that Simon had established a claim for proprietary estoppel against Mrs Morton's estate.  The overall effect of the judgment was that Simon received farm assets from Mrs Morton's estate which did not pass to him under the terms of the Will.

Should you require advice about challenging the validity of a will, based on proprietary estoppel or otherwise, or the distribution of an estate under the intestacy rules, please get in contact with the Wills, Trusts and Inheritance Disputes team.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.

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