The right of individuals to do as they wish with their own assets is jealously guarded by the law. In one telling case that proved the point, the High Court rejected claims that a wealthy farmer had given a £2.5 million cottage to his eldest son and daughter-in-law or that he had promised to leave it to them in his will.
The son argued that the cottage was his just reward for working hard and for low pay in the family farming and property development business for 20 years. He and his wife had lived in the property throughout that time, bringing up their children there, and claimed to have spent about £700,000 on improving it.
In rejecting the couple’s claim, however, the Court found no evidence that the farmer had given the cottage to them when they became engaged to be married. He had also given them no binding assurance that they would inherit the property. The son had been paid for his work in the family business, from which he stood to benefit in the long term, and had no moral entitlement to the cottage.
The son had knowingly taken a risk when he invested in improving a property that did not belong to him and had never had more than an unenforceable expectation that he would inherit the property on his father’s death. The farmer had not acted unconscionably and the Court noted that the possibility remained open that he would in due course choose to leave the cottage to his son and daughter-in-law.