Have you ever been made a promise by someone, and that person hasn’t fulfilled the promise? Imagine the same scenario but the promise is in relation to inheriting a property, land or even a business. We see this situation most often in the farming community, with families making informal agreements over the succession planning of the farm and family estate. Failure to document informal agreements, can have devastating effects on all parties involved.
If someone claims they have been promised they will inherit property or land, but it is not reflected in a will, we can find ourselves dealing with a legal issue called ‘proprietary estoppel’. Whilst successful proprietary estoppel claims are relatively rare, the cases that we see do have one thing in common and that is that they are usually brought in the context of contentious probate proceedings after one party has died. The recent decision in the case of Guest v Guest  demonstrates that the doctrine of proprietary estoppel is not limited to such circumstances and that a claim may be successful during both parties lifetimes.
So what is proprietary estoppel?
It is a legal doctrine that provides redress where a party has been made promises regarding an inheritance and those promises have not been fulfilled. For the doctrine to apply the following three key elements must be present:
- There needs to be a representation, promise or assurance by the defendant to the claimant which gives rise to an expectation by the claimant that they would receive a proprietary interest;
- The claimant then needs to have relied on that representation, promise or assurance; and,
- The reliance by the claimant must have led to some detriment on their part.
If all three elements are present then a court can grant relief by allowing the claimant to enforce their interest.
The reason that most cases are brought in the context of contentious probate proceedings is simply that the promise made is usually that the claimant will receive the proprietary interest under the terms of the defendant’s will when the defendant dies. The claimant does not know for certain that they have not received it until the defendant dies and at that stage the claim is brought against the defendant’s estate.
A large proportion of reported proprietary estoppel cases relate to farms. Usually, the claimant is one of the children of the farmer and they work on the farm for many years, at low wages and working long hours, having been assured that when the farmer dies they will inherit the farm. The case of Andrew Guest is no different in this respect. Andrew had worked on his father’s farm for over 30 years at a reduced wage on the basis that he has received assurances that he would inherit half of the farm and take over the running of the farm business when his father died. Andrew’s father, David, had made a will in 1981 which left the farm to Andrew and his brother in equal shares. David had also made separate assurances to Andrew that this would happen. Their relationship deteriorated and David made a new will in 2018 that made no provision for Andrew.
Andrew brought a proprietary estoppel case whilst David was still alive. The court found that Andrew had relied on the assurances made by David and that in doing so he had acted to his detriment. The court accepted that if Andrew had worked elsewhere he would have obtained much higher wages. He was awarded 50% of the farming business and 40% of the land. The award is expected to be valued somewhere in the region of £2.7 million.
Where you are preparing a will and considering making no provision for a child it is important to seek professional advice. As can be seen from this case the impact of such a decision may not just be in relation to the administration of your estate, it could have much more immediate consequences. If you have any concerns regarding your will and would like to discuss this please contact us.