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Beneficiary permitted to sell land while will is disputed

Thursday, 13 November, 2014

A woman who befriended an elderly farmer and was designated as the sole beneficiary of his will is now free to sell the farm she inherited, despite the will being challenged by his three adult children.

The testator, Arnold Seals of Derby, committed suicide in December 2013. He had suffered from depression since his wife's death in 2010. However, he struck up a close friendship with Florence Williams, who had been a childhood friend. After his death, it emerged that he had executed a new will in 2011 leaving her his entire estate, including his half share of the Seals family farm in Brassington. This will, which was still in force at his death, was accompanied by a letter of wishes, also drafted by his solicitors, noting that he had disinherited his children because he had lost touch with them since his wife's death.

His three adult children – Robert Seals, Andrew Seals and Barbara Robinson – gave notice to Williams that they intended to make a claim on the estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, and invited her to postpone the sale of the farm until the claim was resolved. Williams declined to do this, and the Seals applied to the Land Registry to record a caution against first registration of the farm (which, having been in the family for decades, had never been registered). They have subsequently extended the scope of their claim on the estate by challenging the validity of the will itself on grounds of lack of capacity and undue influence; and by entering a further claim based on proprietary estoppel. None of these claims has yet been tested in court.

In the meantime, Williams applied to the England and Wales High Court for the removal of the caution, as both she and the other owners of the farm (who are another branch of the Seals family) wanted to sell it at auction.

In reaching his decision, Mr Justice Richards in the High Court noted that the Seals did not want to run the farm or live there. Their interest was purely financial.

Given that some of their claims on the estate might succeed, the key question for the judge was how each party would be affected by cancellation or otherwise of the Land Registry charge, and 'whether either or both parties would be adequately compensated by an award of damages and, if neither can be adequately compensated in that way, where the balance of convenience lies'.

If the caution were not cancelled, the judge said, the farm could not be sold. There was then a material risk that its value could decrease, and a certainty that extra costs such as interest would be incurred. In that case, he concluded that the Seals (who are very short of money) would be unable to compensate the estate for any loss which it might suffer as a result of the caution remaining in place. On the other hand, Williams is independently wealthy and owns several other properties. So if cancellation of the caution caused loss to the estate then she would be able to compensate it.

Moreover, said the judge, the wishes of the farm's co-owners also had to be considered, and they wanted the farm to be sold.

All these factors – together with the fact that the Seals had not yet launched their contentious probate litigation – led the judge to decide that cancellation of the caution was the proper cause. He also encouraged the parties 'in the strongest possible terms' to pursue mediation of the substantive matter of the challenges to Arnold Seals' will (Williams v Seals & Others, 2014 EWHC 3708 Ch).

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