Challenges to wills by relations being ‘disinherited’ by someone for whom they have worked or cared are not uncommon. However, claims are difficult and expensive and all cases underline the importance of succession planning and seeking professional advice to avoid potential claims.
Claims can be brought if there has been a clear promise to the claimant; the claimant has relied on that promise; and has suffered some detriment because of reasonable reliance on that promise. The onus is on the claimant to establish the essential elements which is difficult when conversations and actions have to be remembered by the parties and often can be a case of ‘who said what?’
One recent case involved a dairy farmer’s son who lost a High Court claim to inherit his parent’s £1m farm. The Judge concluded that the farmer’s son was promised that the farm would be his inheritance from about 1978 onwards, “but those assurances were conditional upon [him] working properly on the farm in the manner of a dedicated, long-term farmer." The Judge found that the claimant was not sufficiently interested in the farm and his lifestyle choices indicated that he did not dedicate himself to it, as his interests were elsewhere.
However, there have been several successful High Court claims this year all farming cases and all successful because the claimants were able to show all the 3 essential elements of proprietary estoppel:
- Habberfield v Habberfield -a daughter was entitled to a dairy farm. Her father had made various promises to her, she worked extended hours for low pay with few holidays as she was relying on the promise of inheriting the farm.
- Thompson v Thompson – parents made it very clear that in return for their son’s work he would inherit the farm which was accepted by the whole family, the son worked for low wages, did not pursue other opportunities and had no financial independence. The son was entitled to the farm on his mother’s death despite her will stating otherwise
- Gee v Gee and another – a son was entitled to a controlling shareholding in the family farming company and a share in the farmland. The father had made it clear over 20 years of assurances to the son that he would succeed as the farmer and owner and the son worked long hours for low wages, giving up the chance to work elsewhere. The case revealed the value of the advisers who had carefully documented the family discussions, and this was relied upon in court.