On one hand section 2 of the Law of Property (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989 formalises the procedure for transferring ownership of land. It provides that an agreement for the sale of land can only be made in writing and must be signed by or on behalf of each party.
On the other, there is proprietary estoppel.
In short you may be able to claim proprietary estoppel if someone has assured or promised you something such as land that they own and you then rely upon that promise which results in you suffering a detriment. If successful, this may result in the court finding there to be an irrevocable and legally binding agreement, even where it is not in writing. For further details of the technicalities of a proprietary estoppel case, please see Proprietary Estoppel in Contested Wills.
The High Court August 2016 decision in Moore v Moore allowed a sons claim, based on proprietary estoppel in relation to an equitable interest in a family farming business which he ran with his father.
Stephen Moore (“Stephen”) bought a claim against his father, Roger Moore (“Roger”) claiming an equitable interest, based on proprietary estoppel, in a family farming business which the two ran together.
In the mid-1960s Roger ran his family farm in partnership with his brother, Geoffrey, however he took the lead. Roger and his wife, Pamela had a son, Stephen, and a daughter. From childhood Stephen worked on the farm and subsequently worked on the farm full time after childhood. Stephen claimed that from an early age Roger had told him more than a dozen times that the farm and the farming assets would one day be his. Roger also said that Geoffrey had also made similar comments.
In 1998 Stephen became a salaried partner of the farm and in 2003-4 became an equity partner. In 2008 Geoffrey retired which brought the current partnership to an end. Geoffrey ‘gave’ his share in the partnership to Stephen in exchange for £500,000 which was far less than his share was worth and it was agreed that Roger and Stephen would continue to farm in partnership together. From this point Stephen began to run the day to day business and Roger took a reduced role.
Roger was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and his mental health deteriorated. As a consequence of this the relationships between Roger and Stephen on one hand and Roger and Pamela on the other, deteriorated drastically. It was at this point that Pamela felt as though the farm’s future was unfair on her daughter. Later after 2009, Roger and Pamela both changed their wills so that Stephen no longer inherited the farm and the house.
Stephen brought a claim in proprietary estoppel for his father’s interest in the farm on the grounds that he relied on the repeated promises that he would receive the farm and had, as a result, suffered considerable detriment in the form of lack of holiday, reduced pay, and long, uncompensated hours amongst other things.
The judge ruled in favour of Stephen stating that this was “a just and equitable outcome. It honours what Roger always intended”. This is an example of another claim in proprietary estoppel during someone’s lifetime.