Proprietary Estoppel Claim Succeeds in Contested Will Case
A Will has successfully been
contested following the promises that a father made to one son
during his lifetime.
In Davies v Davies  EWHC
1384 (CH), a dispute arose following Tom Davies' death when one of
his sons, James, claimed that his father (the Testator) promised
during his lifetime that he would inherit the farm which he worked
and lived on. However, the Testator's Will left the farm on trust
for James until he was 60 and thereafter for the farm to be sold
and split into five equal parts i.e. one part each to his other
four children and one part to the claimant's children. Although the
Testator's other children and wife deny the promise made to the
claimant, the Court held that it would be unconscionable to follow
the terms of the Testator's Will and that the claimant does have a
beneficial interest in the farm, by invoking the doctrine of
The doctrine of proprietary
estoppel is based on three elements. These elements are where a
representation or assurance is made to an individual and that
individual relies on such representation or assurance and there is
a detriment to that individual as a consequence of his reliance on
the representation or assurance.
The fundamental principle of
this doctrine is that equity is concerned to prevent unconscionable
conduct; the matter should be considered as a whole rather than as
James claimed that the promise
was first made to him in 1974 when he was 16 years old and
contemplating his future. He claimed his father told him that
because he was the child helping on the farm, if he came home to
work on the farm, the place would be his. The Court stated that the
timing of this is relevant as it was made at a time when young
people make a choice about their future. During the months after
this, when James was re-sitting some of his exams, his father
repeated that if he came home to farm, the farm would be his. James
eventually decided to go to agricultural college and from time to
time, his father would repeat the promise, especially on occasions
such as when he turned up late for milking after playing football.
In comparison, his brothers and sister obtained other careers which
enabled them to have the potential to earn higher wages.
When James was made a partner
of the farming business, his father said it would make it easier
for the farm to be passed on when he retires. In 1984, James'
parents and two of his brothers moved into a bungalow that had been
built on the farm, leaving James in the farmhouse. When his father
gave James the keys to the farmhouse, he said 'There we are then,
it is all yours now. You have done a good job.' His mother said,
'Good luck to you James.'
James claimed that by relying
on these promises, he worked on the farm rather than pursuing an
alternative career and he did so for low wages and long hours. When
he became a partner, he relied on the promises even further, by
putting his profits back into the business and making improvements
costing approximately £177,000. His parents knew about these
improvements and either agreed or did not object. This was
considered to be a significant factor by the Court.
The relationship between
James' wife and the Testator deteriorated from 1993 onwards and the
judge decided that the Wills that the Testator made in 1996 were in
James said that he was unaware
of the Will's contents until 2012. Although the Testator died in
1999, his mother asked the executors not to obtain probate because
she was worried that it would cause a family dispute.
The Testator's other children
said that they were not aware of such a promise made to James.
Indeed, the promise had never been written down or discussed by Tom
with anyone else. They contended that James was able to pay a very
low rent for the farmhouse and benefited from the farming profits.
David, one of the executors, said that he was doing his job as an
executor and trying to carry out the wishes in his father's Will.
The siblings agreed that had such promises been made to James, the
Testator's Will would not have been written as such.
The Court held that these
promises had been made to James. The Court stated that it is
understandable that the Testator would find it more difficult to
discuss the matter with his other children, as they stood to
inherit much less than James, which could explain why they were
unaware of the promises made. The Court found that the conduct of
James' mother and father, and subsequently the executors following
his father's death, gave James assurance that he would inherit the
James had passed up an
alternative career, worked for long hours for low wages and carried
out improvements to the farm and buildings, costing thousands of
pounds. As such, James had relied on these promises to his
detriment. Although he paid a low rent and received a profit from
the business, this would end in a few years when James reached
It would, therefore, be
unconscionable to deny James a beneficial interest in the farm. The
Court found it proportionate to James' detriment that he should
inherit the whole farm, except the bungalow as it had been built by
his father for retirement.
The case presents important
factors for clients to consider. These include making sure that a
Will reflects an individual's wishes and plans. Although a Will
might say one thing, this case illustrates how conduct during an
individual's lifetime might also be considered on the construction
of the Will. Also, communication is key. It is understandable to
want to treat children fairly. However, in situations such as this,
fairness might not necessarily mean equality. Discussing your
succession planning with your family should make them aware of your
wishes and reasons for doing so, which can help to avoid a dispute
in the future.
Posted on: 04/06/2015
This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.
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