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'One day all this will be yours.' Can you rely on a promise?

by Access Legal


Legal rules about promises made during someone's lifetime and whether they are valid after death have been clarified by a House of Lords decision.

David Thorner is a Somerset farmer who worked for nearly 30 years on his father's farm for 'pocket money'. He also worked unpaid on Steart Farm, which belonged to Peter Thorner, his father's cousin.

Peter gave the impression that David would inherit Steart Farm when Peter died. David's hope became an expectation, so he stayed at the farm rather than moving away to pursue other opportunities.

Peter died in 2005 without leaving a Will. Under the rules on intestacy, David had no entitlement to inherit the farm. He brought a claim against Peter's personal representatives seeking to enforce the promises made, albeit obliquely, in Peter's lifetime.

The issues

In order to establish that he had acquired a beneficial interest in the farm, David had to convince the Court that he:

Furthermore, the Court had to decide whether the property itself had been sufficiently identified given that, over the years, Peter had sold farmland for development, and bought other parcels of land.

The decision

The case went all the way to the House of Lords, who held unanimously (overriding the Court of Appeal) that the factual evidence showed that, in the unusual circumstances of the case, it was reasonable for David to expect he would inherit the farm.

David had relied on Peter's assurances and had decided to stay there rather than move away to pursue other opportunities.

The Court also concluded that both Peter and David knew that the extent of the farm was liable to fluctuate, so their common understanding was that Peter's assurance related to whatever the farm consisted of at the date of his death.

The result

David accordingly inherited Steart Farm and all farming assets.


The case is unusual, but not unique.

There are doubtless many occasions when a family member or close friend cares for or works for an ageing person without remuneration, but in reliance on the assurance that: 'One day, all this will be yours'.

Every case will depend on its own particular facts, so the evidence of impartial witnesses who knew the parties and who can testify to the relationship between the deceased and the Claimant will be very important.


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