Family land dispute leaves 91-year-old widow facing eviction

Partner Jonathan Midgley
Partner Jonathan Midgley

Margaret Davies, a 91-year-old widow, faces eviction from her farmhouse home because of a family dispute over land. The complainant in the case (reported recently in the Law Reports) is her son, Sidney, 70, who says that his father promised him a derelict barn and 1.3 acres of land from the family estate for £6,000, in the 1970s.

The £6,000 was never paid and the deeds did not pass to Sidney, but he invested £6,000 in the family business and began work to convert the barn, though this was never finished. Upon Sidney’s father’s death in 1996, ownership of the family farm passed to his mother, Margaret, who failed to give Sidney the 1.3 acres of land he was promised. By that time he had lived on the land for over 20 years and spent thousands of pounds on the barn.

Subsequently, Sidney brought the matter to court and in 2013 Judge Pearce-Higgins found that an agreement had been made that the land would pass to Sidney. Mrs Davies had acknowledged the existence of the agreement in 1996, but did not want to see the land separated from the farm, the judge said.

To avoid further family disputes, the judge ruled that instead of handing over the land, Mrs Davies should pay her son £68,000 and more than £50,000 in legal costs. To secure the debt, the judge put a charge (effectively a mortgage) on the whole of Margaret Davies’s farm.

Sidney moved off the land, but Mrs Davies failed to pay him the outstanding debt and lost her appeal against the charge on the farm. Now, with the debt standing at over £150,000 due to interest, Mrs Davies faces losing the home she has lived in since 1959. Court of Appeal judges have given her until 24 November to pay the debt or an eviction notice and order for the sale of the farm will take effect.

Gaby Hardwicke Private Client Services Partner Jonathan Midgley commented: “This brings to mind the recent Heaver case concerning a farming family. What both cases have in common, although the outcomes were different, was the conspicuous absence of any formalised agreement between the generations affecting what would happen in certain circumstances.

“It is difficult therefore to second guess how cases will be dealt with by the courts. In the Heaver case his claim to have his interest in the converted farm building acknowledged by the court was dismissed whereas in the Davies case the son was successful in claiming an interest in the property.

“What this illustrates is simply the unsatisfactory nature of leaving things unfinished and that however complex it is always preferable to sit down and work through with your solicitor precisely what you want to happen to your assets, as leaving it unclear invariably leads to unforeseen consequences. In most cases the law can come up with a practical solution.”

Expert legal advice on rural property, Wills and estate-planning

As this case illustrates, informal family understandings cannot be relied on. To avoid costly litigation and hurtful family disputes, it is always best to take legal advice to ensure a property owner’s intentions are properly understood and enforceably recorded. If the property or other assets concerned are to be inherited, it is vital that a detailed and properly drafted Will is made and kept up to date.

For expert legal advice on rural property matters, Wills and estate-planning, please contact Private Client Partner Jonathan Midgley:

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