It is not uncommon in farming families for promises to be made to children – or other family members – about inheriting all or part of the farm. All too often, not only are these promises not set out clearly in a will but also the individual relying on the promise may well have sacrificed a great deal by investing both time and money in the farm in the expectation that it would one day be theirs. A recent case introduced an interesting twist into this all too familiar scenario. In Wills v. Sowray, two brothers found themselves disputing a claim by the daughter of their deceased friend, Tony Sowray, that they were not entitled to inherit his farm despite an understanding that they would do so.
A promise between friends
This was an unusual case as neither Matthew or James Wills were related to Tony Sowray. They had known him most of their lives and he spent a considerable time with their respective families; indeed, when giving evidence, Matthew referred to Tony as his best friend. Tony had a 50 acre farm which he had farmed until he retired in the late ‘90s, handing the management of the farm to Matthew with the instruction that he could do with it as he wished. Over the next twenty years, Matthew spent considerable time at the farm, making hay, managing livestock and maintaining buildings. During the same period, Tony also allowed James to build a log cabin on half an acre of ground. Throughout the period, Tony made it clear, verbally, that he would leave the farm to Matthew, and the plot on which his house was built to James.
Daughter inherits under intestacy rules
In the meantime, Tony re-established contact with his daughter, Claire, from whom he had been estranged following his divorce from her mother in the early ‘80s after a brief marriage. As their relationship developed, Tony decided that he would leave Claire the farmhouse but continued to reassure the brothers that they would inherit the land and outbuildings. Tony’s promises to Matthew and James were verbal: nothing was recorded in writing. Tony died in 2017 without a will so, under the prescriptive rules of intestacy Claire stood to inherit everything. Understandably, without anything written down, Claire did not feel obliged to honour an agreement about which she knew little. Accordingly, the brothers launched a claim for equitable relief under the principles of proprietary estoppel in a bid to secure the land as promised to them by Tony.
Brothers shown to have suffered detriment
In court, the judge, Raeside HJ, was required to establish that the principal features of a proprietary estoppel claim were present, namely:
- A promise had been made;
- That the promise was believed and relied on; and
- That reliance on the promise caused the Claimant to suffer detriment.
Six particulars of detriment to Matthew were examined including the cost of spraying to remove rushes and weeds; repairs to the outbuildings and fencing at his cost and in his own time; drainage work; the purchase of machinery, again at his own cost; and the time he spent overall on managing and improving the farm. During questioning, the judge found Matthew to be ‘entirely honest, straightforward, not evasive’. Dealing with James’ claim to the single plot of land, the judge found him to be an equally trustworthy witness, finding the assurances given to him by Tony that he would inherit the plot fulfilled the requirements of an estoppel claim, and thus he upheld the brothers’ claim.
It is rare to find a claim for proprietary estoppel being brought by non-family members. Nonetheless, the case confirmed, from a legal point of view, that the correct way to look at a proprietary estoppel claim is to review the matter retrospectively. This means either from the point of the breakdown in relationship when the promisor reneges on the promise, or in this case, when the promise could not be honoured under the intestacy rules, save by bringing a proprietary estoppel claim. It is easy to make promises to another but, if the intent is genuine, it is imperative that it is recorded in writing, preferably in a will. Without that assurance, a claim may be the only way that someone can ensure that a promise made to them – and which leads them to reorder their lives to their detriment - is fulfilled.