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What do we mean by proprietary estoppel?

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Posted by Katie Alsop on 16 October 2017

Katie Alsop Partner

More and more cases are making the headlines which involve challenges to wills; often cases are made that the deceased did not have capacity to make their last Will or where disgruntled beneficiaries have been missed out of a will and have not inherited as they expected.

These will challenges can be intertwined with what is known as ‘proprietary estoppel’ which typically, relates to a farm.

What do we mean by proprietary estoppel? In a nutshell, the claim is based on facts where land or property, usually a farm, should, as far as the Claimant is concerned have passed to him or her for the following reasons:

  • a promise made to them that they would be the ultimate recipient of the farm;
  • reliance on that promise and in most cases, making life choices with that promise in mind; and
  • the claimant having worked on the farm during their lifetime for little or no payment and therefore, acting to their detriment.

One such case which has in the last week been heard by Judge Paul Matthews at the High Court in London; it encompasses both a proprietary estoppel claim and a challenge to a will based on lack of testamentary capacity. 

The Will in question, which was made two years before the deceased passed away, failed to make any provision for Sam James who had worked for many years on the farm and in the family haulage business. 


Mr James’ case is that his father only signed the Will as a result of his dementia and pressure which was exerted by his Mother, Mrs James. 

By 2010, the deceased had been suffering from dementia for a number of years, something his wife and daughters were well aware of.  As a result, there is clearly a real doubt about the deceased’s capacity to make the alleged 2010 Will”.

In circumstances where dementia is particularly advanced, it can give rise to a testator lacking the necessary testamentary capacity to make a valid will.

Mrs James, objects to Mr James’ claim in respect of the farm and the challenge to the Will.  She argues that no promise was ever made that Mr James would inherit the farm and as a result, his claim should be dismissed.

It is typical in these types of cases that someone leaves school, at what would now be considered an early age, to work on the family farm, without receiving any payment in return for their work, on the basis that the farm is promised to them.  The claimant then bases their life choices on the assurances which have been made to them and when the promise fails to come to fruition, that then gives the potential for a proprietary estoppel claim to be made. 

Signed wills

In an unusual twist of events in this case, in 2004 the deceased gave instructions to a solicitor to draw up a will which gifted the farm to Mr James. On Mr James’ case, his mother “took exception to it” and intercepted the will, which was never signed. 

The deceased made various gifts of land and monies during his lifetime and the challenged Will gives part of the farm to Mr James’ sister, with the remainder being left to his Mother.  One particular point of note is that it was recognised in the evidence put before Judge Matthews at trial, that the relationship between Mr James’ Mother and Father had been strained.   

Conversely, Mrs James and her daughters argue that Mr James had little choice but to work on the farm having not cared for school and left education.  They argue that Mr James had no option other than to work in the family business. 

The partnership which governed the family’s businesses was dissolved in 2009 with Mr James receiving assets worth £1.3m.  Mrs James and her daughters argue that that was done in an attempt to bring closure to Mr James’ dissatisfaction at the circumstances in which he found himself.

Judge Matthews will give Judgment later in the year but this case highlights how proprietary estoppel cases and challenges to wills can be interlinked; it is therefore essential for your advisor to have an understanding of both elements to properly advise you.

As land values have arisen, so have the amount of cases which are brought on the basis of proprietary estoppel.  The consequences of such a claim can be far reaching for the immediate family and especially in circumstances where some members of that family wish to continue farming and the other part of the family wish to extract themselves financially, so that they are able to realise their interest. In order to successfully reach a resolution without the need for Court proceedings, each of those interests much be appreciated and accommodated within any negotiated settlement agreement. 

About the author

Katie specialises in contested wills, disputed estates and the removal and substitution of executors.

Katie Alsop

Katie specialises in contested wills, disputed estates and the removal and substitution of executors.

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