Sunday 17 December 2017

Half of late bachelor's 76-acre farm 'must go to neighbour who worked long hours for substantial underpayment' - High Court

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)

Tim Healy

Half of a 76-acre farm owned by a bachelor who died intestate in 2009 must go to a neighbour who worked at substantial underpayment for the deceased for 38 years, the High Court ruled.

Gerard Finnegan (57) is also entitled to half the value of the stock and machinery of the late James Gartland (79) who owned the dairy and dry stock breeding farm at Broomfield, Castleblaney, Co Monaghan, Mr Justice Michael White said.

The other half goes to Mr Gartland's surviving relatives, who include his brother Eugene and sisters, Margaret, Rosie, Bridget and Kathleen.

Mr Finnegan had brought a claim against Mr Gartland's sister, Margaret Hand, Lough Egish, Castleblaney, as administratrix of her brother's estate. He claimed a constructive trust existed in his favour in relation to the entire farm.

Mr Justice White found such a trust did arise.

This was based on numerous promises to Mr Finnegan that he would be rewarded in the future with an interest in the farm after he (Finnegan) spent a substantial part of his adult life to working the farm, putting in long hours for substantial underpayment for his work, the judge said.

In making his decision, the judge was not relying on Mr Finnegan's claim the deceased promised the farm if he did not tell gardai that he (Gartland) had sexually abused Mr Finnegan in the 1970s.

Mr Finnegan claimed while working for Mr Gartland, from the ages of 11 to 20, he was sexually abused.

Mr Finnegan claimed the abuse stopped in 1979 and Mr Gartland felt sorry it had ever happened.  He said they subsequently grew close and he trusted the deceased afterwards and developed a great friendship.

As a result, the abuse had no bearing on the relationship between 1980 and when he died (2009), Mr Finnegan said.

The judge said making those allegations had not been easy for Mr Finnegan and did not undermine his credibility.

The judge was satisfied Mr Finnegan "devoted an extraordinary amount of time" to the farm, working seven days a week from early morning to late evening and played "a very significant part" in its running.

Mr Gartland became even more reliant on Mr Finnegan when he (Gartland) fractured his leg in 1987 and the injury was not properly repaired.

The judge did not accept Mr Finnegan's claim there was a difficult relationship between Mr Gartland and his siblings.  However, he said, it did not seem the Hand family were actively involved in working the farm.

The judge noted Mr Finnegan's evidence as to repeated promises the farm would go to him including one in 1997, when Mr Gartland was about to go on holiday to Australia.  Mr Gartland, it was claimed, told Mr Finnegan "if the plane falls out of the sky, you have nothing to worry about as I have straightened up".

In 1999, it was claimed, Mr Finnegan was considering moving to Dublin to work in the booming construction industry when Mr Gartland told him: "This will be yours after my day.  The money in the bank will be for my family".

The court heard Mr Finnegan, a married father of three, lived in his (Finnegan's) family farm house near Mr Gartland.  The house was substandard and after they were offered a council house in 1987 in Carrickmacross, and refused it, Mr Gartland gifted them a site on his farm where they built a new house with a bank mortgage.

Mr Justice White said that despite "some problems" with Mr Finnegan's credibility, he accepted his evidence that on different occasions the deceased "both directly and obliquely" led him to believe he would be a beneficiary in his will.

There was no evidence of active efforts to make a will but discussions between Mr Gartland and his accountant suggest that if he made a will it would be in favour of his nieces and nephews, the judge said.

When the evidence was examined in its totality, the judge had little doubt Mr Gartland was "prepared to make promises which he did not necessarily intend to keep to ensure the plaintiff continued to work for him and that he enjoyed the comfort and companionship of the plaintiff's family".

Due to Mr Gartland's behaviour in holding out to him that he would be rewarded in the future, it would "unconscionable that the estate would accrue in its entirety to the blood relations of the deceased", he said.

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