Proprietary Estoppel in the High Court
In May 2015, the High Court decided that promises made by a father to his son can override the terms of the father's Will. This meant that the son got what he was promised by his father over a series of many years.
The case applied the legal doctrine of Proprietary Estoppel.
What is Proprietary Estoppel?
In the context of Wills, this is a claim that the person who signed the Will did not honour a promise to leave part or all of their estate to the disappointed beneficiary. Estoppel requires the disappointed beneficiary to rely on the promise to their detriment.
This case provides a useful illustration of how an Estoppel claim works when dealing with a challenge to a person's Will. This sort of claim can also be made where no Will was made by the person who made the promises.
What was the case about?
The case concerned a family of farmers. Over many years, the father made promises to one of his sons that, if he worked on the farm, it would eventually be his. These promises were verbal and never written down or, indeed, witnessed by people other than the farmer's son and his wife.
The farmer's son relied on these promises and worked on the farm for a low wage with his father for the next ten years. He did not pursue other careers unlike his brothers and sisters, who also continued to start up their own families.
One incident in particular in 1984, the farmer gave the keys of the farmhouse to his son and said "There we are then, it is all yours now. You have done a good job." From that point on, all decisions in the farming business were left to the farmer's son.
So far so good, why does this cause a problem?
In 1999, the farmer died. The Will showed that instead of the farm having been left to his son as above, it was instead held on Trust for his son to live in and work until he was 60 (or he died, if earlier). After that, the farm was to be divided between all of the farmer's children and not just the one son.
What did the Court decide?
Looking at all of the facts and having heard evidence from the farmer's son, his wife, his siblings and various other people, the Court decided that the farmer's son was entitled to have the farm as his own property.
This was obviously different to the farmer's Will, which stated that his son did not own the property outright.
What does this mean for me?
Challenges to Wills can take many forms, and this case is a good example of a promise having been made to a family member that they then relied on to their detriment. That promise was then upheld by the Court when the Will said something very different.
The case does not set any legal precedent, but it does show, helpfully, how the facts of each individual case can be used to interpret a promise that a person's Will should be effectively changed.