Britain’s divorce courts are capable of sounding a death knell for traditional family farms, a meeting of the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s Women in Farming Network heard.
Solicitor Orlando Bridgeman said older generations of families were justified in harbouring concerns about their children’s choice of spouse.
“The divorce courts have almost absurdly wide powers, and their rulings have been the death knell for some farming businesses,” he said at a meeting hosted by the NFU.
Suggesting that pre-nuptual agreements could help to keep farms in the family, he also warned of a trend towards court action over broken promises of succession from one generation to the next.
“It’s very common for a farming father to say to a son or daughter that some day, all his land will be theirs,” said Mr Bridgeman, an associate at Crombie Wilkinson in Malton.
“But there has been a raft of cases ending up in court because a promise has been made and not honoured, and because the value of the land has risen so much.”
He warned: “Promises are almost akin to making a will, and should be treated as such.”
He said it traditionally fell to women to play “pig in the middle” by brokering difficult discussions within farming families.
“Farming is unique from a succession point of view. It’s understandable that older generations want to retain control of what they have, but there must also be a recognition of their children’s situation.
“There is a culture in farming of working for years for almost nothing, in the expectation of an inheritance, while non-farming siblings are away earning money.”
He said the problem – most acute of “two-child farms” too small to support multiple branches of a family – could be overcome by communication within the family.
“The succession is inevitably going to happen. The alternative is the sale of the farm and more often than not, that would be a disastrous consequence,” he said.
“The most important thing is to make sure that the plans are openly discussed so that everyone has their expectations managed and there isn’t a sense of seething resentment after the death of the older generation and people feeling hard done by.
“If the plans are deemed by the younger generation to be unfair, that at least can be brought out into the open.”
Matt Brown, a rural surveyor at George F White, told the meeting that assumptions of a farm passing down a generation were often mired in conditions, especially where a tenancy was involved.
“Landlords often challenge succession applications more keenly, because of the increasing value of the land,” he said.
“A father’s tenancy might be secure in his lifetime but we have seen cases where landlord and tenant are effectively locked in race to outlive each other.”