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 [2015] 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 proprietary estoppel.

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 separate elements.

Claimant's Argument

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 this context.

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.

Defendant's Argument

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.

Court's Decision

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 farm.

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 60.

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.

Points to consider

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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