in an inheritance dispute proprietary estoppel may assist where a promise that was made is not kept in a will

5 Things to Know about Proprietary Estoppel

Proprietary estoppel is a principle that courts use to resolve disputes. Proprietary Estoppel arises when a defendant has made promises or assurances that property will pass to the claimant, and the claimant has relied on these assurances to their detriment.

For example, in Gillett v Holt [2001] Ch 210, a farmer, Mr Holt, made assurances to Mr Gillett that if he worked on his farm for far below the market rate for his work, Mr Gillett and his wife would inherit the property. When Mr Holt tried to give the property to someone else, the court ruled against him- he could not go back on his promise, as Mr Gillett had relied on it to his detriment. Proprietary estoppel arises in will disputes when someone has been promised property, has acted on this promise to their detriment, and then they are not left the property in the person’s will.

  1. Land and Farming

Proprietary estoppel relates to promises that are made with regards to land, and detrimental reliance is often established when the claimant has worked on the land. For this reason, proprietary estoppel cases often involve agricultural land.

For example, in the recent case of Habberfield v Habberfield [2018] EWHC 317 (Ch), a farmer’s daughter was promised that she would inherit the farm, and acted to her detriment by working on the farm for several decades and establishing a dairy farm on the land. When her father passed away and the

farm was not left to the daughter in the will, the courts used proprietary estoppel to establish her right to the value of the farm.

However, proprietary estoppel is not just for farm related will disputes: in the leading case of Pascoe v Turner [1979] 1 WLR 431, an unmarried couple lived together. The man told his partner that the house was hers, and she carried out significant improvements on the property. The court ruled in her favour as she had acted to her detriment in reliance on his assurances.

  1. Assurances

 When a will dispute gives rise to proprietary estoppel, it will be necessary for the claimant to establish that assurances, or promises, have been made. There is no set rule as to what exactly amounts to an assurance, and the court will look at evidence of what the testator said to the claimant.

As the testator will have passed away before the dispute, witness statements from third parties who do not have anything to gain from the dispute are of vital importance to a court, as they give an account of the relationship between the parties and any promise or understanding that was reached regarding the property. 

  1. Reliance

The claimant has to show that they acted in reliance on the assurances. Giving up the opportunity of paid work, making an expensive decision to move home, or working on the land itself are actions that can be regarded as reliance on a promise of inheriting land. 

  1. Detriment

Detriment can be established either by showing that the claimant has suffered loss as a direct consequence of their reliance on the defendant’s promises, or that they would have been in a better financial situation if they had done otherwise.

The extent of the detriment is a factor that is used when deciding on the nature and extent of the appropriate remedy. 

  1. Remedies in proprietary estoppel cases

Proprietary Estoppel can give rise to a wide range of remedies, from a transfer of the property into the name of the claimant, to damages in the amount of the property that was promised, or the loss that was suffered by the claimant. In Jennings v Rice [2002] EWCA Civ 159, the court decided that the appropriate remedy for a proprietary estoppel will dispute was the minimum amount necessary to “satisfy the equity”, i.e the minimum amount to make the situation fair.

If a claimant can successfully show assurances, reliance and detriment, then the court will use proprietary estoppel to consider the appropriate remedy for the situation.

If you are considering a will dispute, and you think proprietary estoppel may be involved, you will undoubtedly need legal advice to set out your claim in the best terms possible. Will Claim solicitors specialise in will disputes and have many years’ experience in this field. Get in touch to find out more about our services.