Is a Promise Enough to Win an Estate Dispute?

It’s not unusual for individuals to make promises to their loved ones about their estate.

For example, grandparents might promise to leave certain precious objects to their grandchildren, or parents might promise their children that they’ll be plenty in their estate for large purchases to be made after their death.

However, not all of these promises materialise. As a result, bereaved family members are often disappointed by what they find in a loved one’s Will, and these disappointments can lead to full-blown inheritance disputes.

Is a promise about a Will legally binding?

It’s difficult to give a straightforward answer to this question. Generally speaking, promises that individuals have made about who will or won’t be inheriting from them are not usually legally enforceable unless they’ve been recorded in a valid Will.

In some cases, promises might have been made about money and assets that simply don’t exist. In others, the person who has died may have made the same promises to more than one loved one. There is often no legal recourse to take in these situations.

However, if you find yourself in this situation, then it might be worth exploring the concept of proprietary estoppel. This precedent allows individuals in certain situations to make a claim against an estate when a promise has been broken and they have suffered a detriment as a result.

When might you have the right to make a proprietary estoppel claim?

In order for proprietary estoppel to arise, it must be established that:

  • a promise or assurance was given to you
  • the promise/assurance was relied upon by you
  • you suffered some kind of detriment as a result of relying on the promise/assurance

For example, consider a situation where an elderly woman promises her son that she will leave him her house if he becomes her full-time carer until her death. If the son was to move in with the woman on this basis – and had to give up his career to be able to care for her – this could meet the criteria for proprietary estoppel if the woman later chose to leave the house to her daughter instead.

That said, making a claim in proprietary estoppel is not easy. The outcome will very much depend on all the circumstances of the case and the strength of the evidence on both sides.

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The case of Wills and another v Sowray (2020)

Anthony Sowray owned around 50 acres of farmland which included a farmhouse along with a number of barns and outbuildings. For more than twenty years, the land had been farmed and occupied by Sowray’s friend, Matthew Wills. Wills’ brother, James Wills, also lived on the estate, where he and his wife occupied a small plot of land.

Anthony Sowray had promised the Wills brothers that they would benefit from his Will when he died. More specifically, Sowray had told Matthew Wills that he would inherit the farm. Sowray had also made a deal with James Wills, whereby Sowray agreed to leave James the small plot of land he lived on in return for James giving him a Jeep.

When Anthony Sowray died, he didn’t leave a valid Will. This meant that his estate was distributed according to intestacy laws and his estranged daughter inherited the farm. Matthew and James Wills then made a claim against the estate on the basis of proprietary estoppel.

The judge in this case ruled that both the brothers’ experiences met the requirements of proprietary estoppel. Matthew Wills had relied on Sowray’s assurance by putting a great deal of work into the farm over the course of 20 years, which was obviously to his detriment if ownership of the farm passed to Sowray’s daughter.

In turn, James Wills had relied on Sowray’s assurance by handing over the Jeep in good faith and by building a log cabin on the plot of land. Both these actions represented a significant loss of money for James Wills.

In this particular case, the judge ruled that the ownership of the farm should be transferred to Matthew Wills, and that the plot of land should be transferred to James Wills. The defendant, Anthony Sowray’s daughter, was also ordered to pay the Wills brothers’ legal costs.

What might be the result of a proprietary estoppel claim?

Though there have been a large number of proprietary estoppel claims made in recent years, it’s still reasonably uncommon for them to be successful. This is because it can be difficult to establish whether or not a clear commitment has been made from witness statements alone.

It’s also important to understand that winning a proprietary estoppel claim doesn’t necessarily mean you would be granted what was originally promised to you, such as in the Wills and another v Sowray case. Even if a judge was to rule that your case met the requirements for proprietary estoppel, the law is open to interpretation on how the situation should be put right. A judge may choose to grant you what you were originally promised, or they may simply decide to reimburse you for whatever detriment you’d experienced.

If you think you might be eligible to make an inheritance claim of this kind, we’d recommend talking to a solicitor that specialises in estate and property disputes.

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