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Clarke Willmott discusses issues highlighted by Clarkson’s Farm

By TBM Team
7 July 2021
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Clarkson’s Farm has been praised for bringing farming issues to light, but family lawyer Chris Longbottom (pictured), of national law firm Clarke Willmott, says Jeremy Clarkson’s own relationship status also brings an important talking point to the fore.

As Clarkson’s new hit show Clarkson’s Farm on Amazon Prime has shown, life on the farm isn’t always as easy as it seems. The show follows Clarkson and his girlfriend, Lisa Hogan, as they get to grips with the everyday (and sometimes not everyday) problems farm owners face.

But, is there another potential long-term issue that lies on the farm, which others can perhaps learn from their relationship and the impact this may have upon the farm if they were to separate or even divorce?

Both Clarkson and Hogan will know, as they have each experienced divorce previously, divorce or separation is a tumultuous time for any family. However, if you are part of a farming family, your home is also often your business and therefore the division of assets can be especially devastating, not only from a financial perspective but also an emotional one.

Farming is invariably a family affair. Many farms pass through several generations, with members of the family devoting years of their lives to working hard.

If a married couple cannot agree between themselves, or their solicitors, as to how assets should be divided on a divorce, it falls to the court to decide. When deciding on the division of assets, the court considers what is fair. The starting point is equal sharing, meaning that all assets owned either in spouses’ joint names or sole names are split equally between the parties, subject to needs.

In farming divorce settlements, there are usually additional complicating factors due to there being inherited land which has passed through many generations. While inherited assets could potentially be considered 'non-marital' and therefore excluded from equal sharing, this is unlikely to be the case for the matrimonial home, which is always considered a marital asset, even if inherited as part of an agricultural holding. The parties’ needs and the needs of any children of the family take precedence over anything else, and so if inherited assets need to be divided in order to meet the parties’ needs, those assets are not protected. The court has ultimate discretion in determining how assets (including trust and business assets) are divided on separation or divorce, resulting in a great deal of uncertainty and unpredictability.

If Clarkson and Hogan were to consider marriage, especially having been married and divorced previously, they may wish to look at ways that they could protect the farm in divorce. Protecting their interest by entering into a nuptial agreement can help avoid costly court proceedings if things do not go to plan. A pre-nuptial agreement is recommended for couples who are planning to marry, to help protect inherited or pre-owned assets and avoid costly court proceedings in the event of a separation. Although not currently strictly legally binding in the UK, the courts are becoming more and more inclined to follow the terms of nuptial agreements, provided that they are prepared correctly.

If Clarkson and Hogan did not wish to remarry, then individuals who live together but do not plan to marry can enter into a cohabitation agreement to record what should happen, should they decide to separate, including what happens to the farmhouse, land, business interests and personal items. In the event of there not being an agreement in place, the claims for unmarried couples are not the same as for married couples. However, if an unmarried partner has contributed towards mortgage repayments or made other contributions to property owned in the sole name of their partner for instance, then he or she may be able to make a claim for an interest in the property in some circumstances.

In many cases, it takes a major life event like separation or divorce to prompt individuals to think about the merits of putting in place an agreement, by which point it is too late. Clarkson and Hogan have both experienced divorces previously and perhaps have considered their legal positions as to the farm, perhaps not – but others should take advice as to their own circumstances from an expert as early as possible. It may not be a particularly romantic topic and a difficult one to broach, but having a discussion at an early stage, and getting an agreement drawn up by an expert family law solicitor can go a long way towards avoiding stressful and costly court proceedings later down the line.

“It is only the farmer who faithfully plants seeds in the spring, who reaps a harvest in the autumn” (B.C. Forbes). Perhaps the same can be said for those who plan for separation.

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