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There is a range of particular and specific issues which can affect farming divorce cases, such as low liquidity, the implications of a sale, a volatile trading climate, and complex valuation exercises. However, one which is found in most if not all farming divorces is the impact and involvement of the wider family, whether in terms of business ownership, trust arrangements, or succession planning.
Never are the opinions and general involvement of the wider family felt more keenly than in farming divorces and that has been illustrated to followers of Radio 4’s the Archers by the often unhelpful involvement of farmer Brian Aldridge in the divorce of his daughter Alice and her husband, local farrier Chris Carter. Brian, who never approved of his daughter marrying Chris, calling it her “starter marriage”, is concerned about Alice’s shareholding in the family farming business, Home Farm, and whether Chris’ claims on divorce could impact on the family finances. His anxiety is both realistic and appropriate because the court has a wide-range of powers on divorce to deal with the available assets and this can include ordering the sale or transfer of shares.
Whilst Brian’s involvement serves only to increase the temperature, his concern is entirely relatable for farming families. This is because it is so often the case that the farm, either in whole or in part, has been in one party’s family for generations and has been gifted to or inherited by that party before or during the marriage. No wonder therefore that the wider family involve themselves, because the stakes are often so very high.
The court will do all it can to avoid the forced sale of a farm, particularly when it is profitable, has been in one party’s family for generations, and was gifted or inherited with an expectation that it would be retained for future generations. However, it is not always possible to meet both parties’ needs without a sale and it is that which causes the wider farming family such anxiety; a potential claim by their adult child’s spouse against the family assets could threaten the continuation of the farming business.
The importance for farming families of protecting their farming business from the consequences of a potential future divorce cannot be underestimated and the existence of a pre-nuptial (or post nuptial) agreement is becoming increasingly common. This is something Alice Carter denied her family the opportunity to insist upon, as she and Chris announced their spur-of-the-moment marriage upon returning from a holiday in Las Vegas. There is a need for sensitivity and an acknowledgement of the lack of romance in contemplating a marriage breakdown before (or shortly after) a wedding, but planning ahead is essential for every farming family; it could mean the difference between the business being sold or continuing for the benefit of future generations.
The team which is assembled around a party to a farming divorce is crucial. Farmers or those married to a farmer do not need a specific farming divorce lawyer but they do need a good lawyer with experience of the particular issues that a farming divorce can throw up.
With a farming divorce, almost more than any other divorce, careful thought and strategic planning is required on both sides; it’s not just the end result that matters but the future as well.
Abby Buckland is a Partner in the Family and Divorce team who undertakes matters involving all aspects of private family law and in particular complex financial issues and private children cases.
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