Two brothers win farming land inheritance dispute

Two brothers went to the High Court and were awarded the land they were promised by a farmer
Two brothers went to the High Court and were awarded the land they were promised by a farmer

Two brothers have won £350,000 worth of land after a dispute at the High Court over a farming inheritance.

Matthew and James Wills have been awarded the 50 acres of Gilmoor Farm in Harrogate, plus the associated outbuildings.

The brothers were promised for years they would inherit the land by the deceased, Anthony Sowray (Tony).

The deceased’s daughter, Claire Sowray, inherits the £150,000 farmhouse.

The case arose after Tony died without a will in place, automatically leaving the entire estate to Claire through intestacy law.

This is despite Matthew working on the farm for over 20 years and James having been promised the plot of land where he had built his home.

Will dispute lawyers at Irwin Mitchell were instructed by the brothers to work on the case, and were handed down a successful judgment on the 15 April following a hearing at the High Court in March 2020.

In the Wills & Wills v Sowray dispute, brothers Matthew and James Wills were lifelong friends of Anthony Sowray, who had an estranged daughter Claire.

Tony owned and lived at Gilmoor Farm, which consisted of approximately 50 acres comprising grazing land, a farmhouse and various barns and outbuildings, totalling around £600k in value.

Matthew was heavily involved in the farm and had been promised the land when Tony died.

As a result of this assurance, Matthew undertook all of the work on the farm.

James had a separate agreement with Tony that he would give Tony his Jeep in exchange for a plot of land (which he would receive on Tony’s death) where James already lived with his wife in a log cabin.

Tony assured James that he had his affairs in order and James relied on these assurances by installing a log cabin on the plot and undertaking significant work to make the plot his home.

None of these agreements were made in writing.

In the later years of Tony’s life, he began to have more of a relationship with his estranged daughter Claire, and made clear to Matthew that he intended to leave the farmhouse to Claire.

From then on, Matthew understood Tony would leave the farmhouse to Claire and the rest of the land (save for the plot which would pass to James) would be left to him.

Tony died intestate in 2017, meaning his daughter Claire would inherit the entire estate.

Tony and Claire only met in person when Claire was 22, and she claimed Tony had intended for the entire farm to be hers and that they had made business plans together for the farm.

However, Matthew and James argued that by the time Tony became reconciled with Claire, the promises Tony had made to them had made their livelihoods entirely reliant on them.

Tony was therefore not entitled or free to go back on the promises he had made.

Matthew and James were successful in their claims and an order was made for the transfer of the land to Matthew and the plot to James.

Claire is to inherit the farmhouse and will have to pay the costs of the litigation.

Irwin Mitchell warns that not having a will in place can lead to lengthy and costly disputes, and that farming families should look to put these in place as their estates often consist of parcels of land and multiple properties.

Paula Myers, of Irwin Mitchell said the case was 'slightly unusual’ in that it involved long-term friends instead of family members, as is usual in these types of claims.

"Tony had told them on many occasions that the land would one day be theirs," she said, "Many witnesses had to give evidence about the brothers working on the land and about the promises that were made to them over many years.

"It goes to show the outcome of a case must be determined on a case-by-case basis, and that there isn’t one size fits all solution."

Ms Myers said the case also highlights the importance placed upon witness evidence and how these types of cases are fact specific and require the judge to make findings of fact based on how he perceives the witnesses.

"The court will clearly give significant weight to a witness’s credibility and how they present at trial," she added.

“Ensuring your estate planning is in order to prevent unfortunate situations like this has proven vital.

“Had Tony put plans in place to ensure that Matthew, James and Claire were provided for as he intended, this lengthy case and trial could have been avoided.”