Worthing Newsletter – November 2018

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A Broken Promise – The Doctrine Of Proprietary Estoppel And Inheritance Claims

Imagine being promised something in a Will, only to find that, upon the document’s reading, you have been left out in the cold.  This is what happened to Lucy Habberfield, the youngest daughter of Frank and Jane.  The latter owned the 220-acre Woodrow Farm, which was operated as a partnership and owned by the couple as beneficial joint tenants.  When Frank passed away, his Will left Jane his entire Estate.  The property also passed to her by survivorship.

Lucy worked on the farm from 1983 to 2013, when she left following a dispute with one of her sisters.  She focused her work on dairy farming, which became the heart of the business.  From 2007, Lucy’s partner also worked full-time on the farm.  Her three siblings did not work on the farm to the same extent; however, there had been fierce rows and previous litigation between the brothers and sisters about the distribution of benefits for the work done on the property.  Lucy alleged that she had continued working at the farm because her father had assured her that she would take it over when he retired.

When this failed to eventuate, Lucy made a claim under the doctrine of Proprietary Estoppel.

What is Proprietary Estoppel?

Proprietary Estoppel is a claim in Equity.  Claims are often brought in relation to inheritance disputes relating to farms or other family businesses.  Essentially, a claim in Proprietary Estoppel may arise if a person has been promised they will inherit the property when the owner dies and relies on that promise to their detriment.  For example, the person may have worked on the farm or in the family business for little or no remuneration after receiving a promise that the business would be passed onto them.

What is needed to establish a claim in Proprietary Estoppel?

To successfully establish a claim in Proprietary Estoppel, the Claimant must prove, on the balance of probabilities that:

  • a clear promise was made to them,
  • they relied on that promise, and
  • because of that reasonable reliance, they suffered a detriment

In the case of Habberfield v Habberfield, Jane Habberfield defended the claim brought by her daughter.  She argued that to her knowledge, her husband had never promised Lucy the farm, and even if he had done so without her knowledge, she could not be bound by such a promise.  She also stated that Lucy had exaggerated the work she had done on the property and had not suffered any detriment.

The court disagreed with Mrs Habberfield and awarded Lucy £1.17 million in cash.  This comprised of the value of part of the property and some farm buildings.  By awarding a cash sum, the need for the farm to be split and sold off was avoided.

Evidence presented convinced the Court that Frank had made a clear promise to Lucy regarding the inheritance of the farm and Jane was aware of the undertaking.  In reliance to the promise, Lucy had worked long hours, with few holidays and for little pay.  The judge commented that Lucy could have used her talents and resources to build a successful farm of her own, and the fact she did not due to her reliance on her father’s promise was to her detriment.

The key to determining a Proprietary Estoppel is whether it would be unconscionable to allow the Defendant to deny the Claimant the benefit that they were led to believe they were to receive and acted on that belief to their disadvantage.

In summary

Like all contentious Probate matters, Proprietary Estoppel is not easy to establish.  It is always essential to keep in mind that although disputes surrounding Wills and Probate are becoming increasingly common, there is still a pervading ethos in English law that a person is entitled to leave their property to whom they please.

To prove Proprietary Estoppel, it is not enough to state the outcome of the Will is unfair.  It must be proven that there must be an acceptable level of certainty as to precisely what a particular party is estopped from denying.

If you believe you may have a claim in Proprietary Estoppel, the first action to take is to seek professional legal advice.

Bennett Griffin are award-winning solicitors based in West Sussex with offices in central Worthing and Ferring.  Our experienced and specialist solicitors offer a comprehensive service and will work with you in an honest, considered, and practical manner.  Our Wills, trusts, and Probate department is able to advise and assist you in relation to contesting a Will.  Please contact us on 01903 229 999 or by email at info@bennett-griffin.co.uk for more information.

Please note this article does not constitute legal advice.