Farmer's son is suing his sisters, 63 and 65, over £5m inheritance

Farmer’s son, 62, who claims he ‘was promised from a young age’ the family land would be his when his father died is suing his sisters, 63 and 65, in battle over £5m inheritance

  • Michael Spencer is suing his two sisters Jane Flower and Penelope Spencer 
  • He claims he was promised the family’s farm after toiling on it for £30-a-week 

A farmer’s son who claims he was promised the family’s farm by his father is suing his sisters in a bid to claim the entire £5million business for himself. 

Michael Spencer, 62, is locked into a court battle with his sisters Jane Flower, 65, and Penelope Spencer, 63, over claims he is entitled to the 405-acre Lincolnshire estate after having toiled on it for as little as £30-a-week from a young age.

At the High Court, Michael is now seeking to block his older sisters from claiming their share of the family land that his father John put into a trust before he died. 

His two sisters claim their father did not intend the land to go solely to Michael – who had already received £2.2million of inheritance – but instead wanted the whole family to benefit.

They say Michael had received a ‘slew of benefits’ – including a £745,000 pension and assets worth nearly £1.5m – from a business that was effectively ‘donated’ to him.

Michael Spencer, 62, (pictured) is suing his sisters Jane Flower, 65, and Penelope Spencer, 63, (pictured) over claims he was promised the family’s Lincolnshire farm

High Court judge Mr Justice Rajah heard their father, John Spencer, had farmed in Lincolnshire since the 1960s, first at Grange Farm, North Witham, as a tenant of the Buckminster Estate.

He also inherited 59 acres from his own father in 1975, as well as accumulating other small parcels before purchasing 300 acres at Glebe Farm, Stainby, and Bourne Road, Colsterworth, in 1982.

From 1983, he farmed in partnership with his son, daughter Penelope and wife Jean, before with Michael made a 95% stakeholder in 1996 after the father and son continued alone.

Michael later succeeded the whole of the partnership business following his father’s death, including cash and other liquid assets worth nearly £1.5m.

He had previously taken over the tenancy of the 411-acre Grange Farm on his father’s recommendation.

But in addition to receiving that, Michael claims that he is also entitled to 405 acres of land, of which his father owned the freehold and which could be worth as much as £5m.

As set out in his father’s will, that land, which as well as agricultural value has the potential for quarrying, had been placed into a discretionary trust for the benefit of all of John’s children and grandchildren.

Giving evidence, Michael insisted that he had been promised by his dad that the farm would be his and that that meant not only the business, but the freehold land too.

‘From my earliest days, it was made clear to me by my father that I was going to have a career in farming,’ he told the judge.

‘Consistently throughout my life, my father had said to me repeatedly that I would become the farmer and take on the farm after him.

‘I always relied on those promises in respect of my future. I always took him at his word that this would include inheriting his freehold land.’

Michael Spencer’s sisters Jane Flower (pictured) and Penelope Spencer claim their father John Spencer wanted the whole family to benefit

He said that, at times, he had earned as little as £30-a-week for his work on the farm, but his father said it did not matter as it would be his eventually.

‘If we had an argument, he would say ‘what’s your problem? You will inherit all this when I have gone’,’ he said from the witness box.

‘He would say, ‘you are going to inherit this, I don’t know why you’re bothered with how much you earn.”

Yet in a joint argument put to the court, the sisters’ barristers Caroline Shea KC and Sarah Haren KC say that, far from acting to his detriment by working on the farm in reliance on promises of inheritance, Michael had actually benefited greatly.

‘He has been a substantive partner in a valuable farming business since the age of 19, with a 95% share in the business since [he was] aged 34, since when 95% of the profits of this highly profitable business have been accruing to his capital account every year,’ they said.

‘He now has the entire benefit of that farming business, with assets of just under £1.5m, most of which are liquid.

‘He has a substantial pension fund, worth £745,000 at the date of the deceased’s death.

‘He has enjoyed all the other benefits of being a partner, such as having his rent, utilities and cars met from partnership funds.

‘This slew of benefits is the opposite of detriment; the fact he has worked hard in a business which has in effect been donated to him is hardly the stuff of unconscionability.’

They say John Spencer’s approach to land ownership and will-making strongly suggests that he never made such a promise or assurance.

A dispute over Glebe Farm in Lincolnshire (pictured) sits at the centre of the High Court battle 

‘In any event, even if the deceased is found to have made statements to Michael in relation to his succession to the farm, they fall short of the clear promise or assurance as to inheritance of the freehold land which Michael needs for his claim to succeed.

‘Such statements as were made would have been consistent with the deceased’s desire that Michael should succeed to the tenancy and to the farming business, both of which happened.

‘As the evidence shows and as Michael knew, whilst the deceased intended Michael to take on the farming business, and to be ‘the farmer’, it was always the deceased’s intention to retain control of his land, to be dealt with as he saw fit in the light of changing circumstances.’

They continued: ‘The reality is that the deceased felt able to make the 2018 will because he did not believe himself to be, and was not, under any obligation to Michael to leave him the land outright.

‘He had deliberately retained control of the farmland he bought with his own money precisely so he was free to do with it as he pleased.

‘The deceased retained unfettered testamentary freedom, and had never promised the farmland to Michael.’

Jane and Penelope say that, should Michael fail in his claim to the land, then he has been occupying it as a ‘trespasser’ since his father’s death and will have to pay about £130,000 for its use.

Speaking at the start of the trial, Mr Justice Rajah said: ‘This is a family dispute and feelings run high, but it doesn’t help me to trawl through every last dispute there has been.

‘We are not going to put this family back to rights in this trial.’

Judgment is expected to be reserved until a later date.

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