Do your parents have to provide for you in their will? According to the latest result in the High Court, yes they do.
The case of K v K came before the court this week. The case concerned a fraternal face-off between two brothers over their inheritances. Their father died in 1996, leaving his considerable estate to his wife, the mother of the defendant and the plaintiff. In 2013, she passed away. Her will stipulated that her three daughters receive her ‘china, Delph, and cutlery’ and a lump sum of €5,000 each. Meanwhile, the defendant gained the lion’s share of the estate, with the court valuing his total gifts at €3,006,365. The other brother received a much more modest inheritance amounting to only €748,547. He also only got 3.5 acres out of a 90-acre estate.
The disaffected brother advanced three claims as to why he deserved more. First, promissory estoppel and proprietary estoppel. This legal concept means that if someone makes a promise to you and you rely on the promise to your detriment (this can be a financial or time-based detriment) then you can sue. The plaintiff supported this by stating that he left school at 15 to work on the farm for 20 years without pay. His second claim stated that he had a testamentary contract or understanding with his mother that he would receive the farm. Finally, he challenged the will under s.117 of the Succession Act 1965, which states that a parent has a moral duty to provide for their children in accordance with their means.
By all accounts, this trial was fraught with blame and acrimony on both sides. The mother and three of the siblings had started a business in 1997 on the family farm which had developed into a very successful concrete business. The relationship soured when one of the siblings succeeded in an adverse possession claim in the early 2000s. The plaintiff’s in-laws later got involved in a dispute with the mother where the plaintiff appeared as a witness against her. This sundered any business relationship and the plaintiff alleged he was ‘bullied out’ after this.
Mr Justice McDonald agreed that the evidence substantiated the plaintiff’s claims that he had not left the business willingly. Justice McDonald also determined that the plaintiff’s evidence was more robust than the defendants’. He then stated that it was clear a promise had been made to the plaintiff and he had acted to his detriment. The judge also said that while the mother was allowed to make some gifts more generous than others, the disparity was too stark to be ignored. The plaintiff was entitled to more. He concluded by ordering the defendant to transfer the 90 acres to the plaintiff.
In John B Keane’s The Field, ‘Bull’ McCabe claims that the law of the land is stronger than the common law. Those words ring true in this case but they also fall short of an even more disturbing truth. Land disputes frequently involve families arguing over the inheritance, vying for the possessions they once shared as kids. More often than not, this frays any good relationship and poisons any bad one. The law of the land not only beats the common law; it trumps most bonds of family.
By Daniel Forde – Law Editor