Proprietary Estoppel Claim Succeeds in Contested Will Case
A Will has successfully beencontested following the promises that a father made to one sonduring his lifetime.
In Davies v Davies  EWHC1384 (CH), a dispute arose following Tom Davies' death when one ofhis sons, James, claimed that his father (the Testator) promisedduring his lifetime that he would inherit the farm which he workedand lived on. However, the Testator's Will left the farm on trustfor James until he was 60 and thereafter for the farm to be soldand split into five equal parts i.e. one part each to his otherfour children and one part to the claimant's children. Although theTestator's other children and wife deny the promise made to theclaimant, the Court held that it would be unconscionable to followthe terms of the Testator's Will and that the claimant does have abeneficial interest in the farm, by invoking the doctrine ofproprietary estoppel.
The doctrine of proprietaryestoppel is based on three elements. These elements are where arepresentation or assurance is made to an individual and thatindividual relies on such representation or assurance and there isa detriment to that individual as a consequence of his reliance onthe representation or assurance.
The fundamental principle ofthis doctrine is that equity is concerned to prevent unconscionableconduct; the matter should be considered as a whole rather than asseparate elements.
James claimed that the promisewas first made to him in 1974 when he was 16 years old andcontemplating his future. He claimed his father told him thatbecause he was the child helping on the farm, if he came home towork on the farm, the place would be his. The Court stated that thetiming of this is relevant as it was made at a time when youngpeople make a choice about their future. During the months afterthis, when James was re-sitting some of his exams, his fatherrepeated that if he came home to farm, the farm would be his. Jameseventually decided to go to agricultural college and from time totime, his father would repeat the promise, especially on occasionssuch as when he turned up late for milking after playing football.In comparison, his brothers and sister obtained other careers whichenabled them to have the potential to earn higher wages.
When James was made a partnerof the farming business, his father said it would make it easierfor the farm to be passed on when he retires. In 1984, James'parents and two of his brothers moved into a bungalow that had beenbuilt on the farm, leaving James in the farmhouse. When his fathergave 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 relyingon these promises, he worked on the farm rather than pursuing analternative career and he did so for low wages and long hours. Whenhe became a partner, he relied on the promises even further, byputting his profits back into the business and making improvementscosting approximately £177,000. His parents knew about theseimprovements and either agreed or did not object. This wasconsidered to be a significant factor by the Court.
The relationship betweenJames' wife and the Testator deteriorated from 1993 onwards and thejudge decided that the Wills that the Testator made in 1996 were inthis context.
James said that he was unawareof the Will's contents until 2012. Although the Testator died in1999, his mother asked the executors not to obtain probate becauseshe was worried that it would cause a family dispute.
The Testator's other childrensaid that they were not aware of such a promise made to James.Indeed, the promise had never been written down or discussed by Tomwith anyone else. They contended that James was able to pay a verylow rent for the farmhouse and benefited from the farming profits.David, one of the executors, said that he was doing his job as anexecutor and trying to carry out the wishes in his father's Will.The siblings agreed that had such promises been made to James, theTestator's Will would not have been written as such.
The Court held that thesepromises had been made to James. The Court stated that it isunderstandable that the Testator would find it more difficult todiscuss the matter with his other children, as they stood toinherit much less than James, which could explain why they wereunaware of the promises made. The Court found that the conduct ofJames' mother and father, and subsequently the executors followinghis father's death, gave James assurance that he would inherit thefarm.
James had passed up analternative career, worked for long hours for low wages and carriedout improvements to the farm and buildings, costing thousands ofpounds. As such, James had relied on these promises to hisdetriment. Although he paid a low rent and received a profit fromthe business, this would end in a few years when James reached60.
It would, therefore, beunconscionable to deny James a beneficial interest in the farm. TheCourt found it proportionate to James' detriment that he shouldinherit the whole farm, except the bungalow as it had been built byhis father for retirement.
The case presents importantfactors for clients to consider. These include making sure that aWill reflects an individual's wishes and plans. Although a Willmight say one thing, this case illustrates how conduct during anindividual's lifetime might also be considered on the constructionof the Will. Also, communication is key. It is understandable towant to treat children fairly. However, in situations such as this,fairness might not necessarily mean equality. Discussing yoursuccession planning with your family should make them aware of yourwishes and reasons for doing so, which can help to avoid a disputein the future.
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.