Claiming ownership of property based on a promise

Claiming ownership of property based on a promise - Proprietary estoppel is in the news once again with another family farm dispute

It is common for the legal principle of proprietary estoppel to be relied upon in family farm disputes where a party is claiming ownership of property having been made a promise. Children are often encouraged to work on the family farm for low pay or long hours in return for living on the farm and acquiring an interest in it. When those promises are denied or reneged upon people turn to law to uphold their interest.

How does proprietary estoppel arise

Propriety estoppel arises when a property owner promises someone that they will acquire rights in relation to a property. The promisee must act in reliance on the promise to their detriment, to a point that it would be unconscionable or unfair for the property owner not to honour the promise. 

Proving proprietary estoppel

Anyone claiming ownership of property based on proprietary estoppel must show that there was assurance, reliance and detriment:

  • Assurance is that a promise or representation has been made. It can be express or implied, but must be clear and unambiguous that the claimant has or will have rights in the property.
  • Reliance is evidenced by the claimant’s conduct, showing that they relied on the assurance. This is achieved by displaying a clear link between their actions and the assurance.
  • Detriment is met by the claimant being able to show that they have acted to their own disadvantage. This could be working on a farm for low wages or improving a property either by investing their own money or undertaking work free of charge.

Satisfying the court

The court will assess the circumstances of each individual case.

The judge will consider the detriment suffered by the claimant and order a remedy that is proportionate to it. Available remedies include transfer of land, an easement and a monetary award. 

Wild -V- Wild: Did proprietary estoppel arise?

In this recent case the family farm partnership was run by the deceased, Ben Wild, and his two sons Gregory and Malcolm Wild. Ben Wild passed away in 2003 and left in his Will the farm and bungalow valued at 1.65 Million pounds to his widow. The two sons continued to run the partnership until 2016 when the partnership broke down.

Malcolm and his wife moved into the bungalow in 1988.  During this time they claim that they met the costs of extensive modernisation, renovations and extension of the bungalow. This expenditure was incurred in reliance on assurances from Malcolm’s father Ben, that the bungalow would ultimately be theirs.They were therefore claiming ownership of property.

However, Gregory argued that there were no such assurances and that most of the expenditure for the work was paid out of the partnership account. In addition, he said the fact the widow transferred the title of the bungalow to herself is evidence of the lack of assurance.

Malcolm’s wife owned a nearby cottage and the court considered that some of their money would, more than likely, have been spent on this cottage, unless assurances as to the bungalow had been given. The court took the view that the fact the widow transferred the title of the bungalow to herself had no bearing on the assurance as there was no change in the arrangement of the farm.

While the court agreed that some funds from the partnership were used to pay for works on the bungalow, it was satisfied that the bulk of the expenditure came from Malcolm and his wife. Their commitment to spend funds on the bungalow outweighed the benefit of living rent-free and being able to rent out the cottage.

The court concluded that proprietary estoppel did arise and the three key requirements of assurance, reliance and detriment had been met. Malcolm and his wife should accordingly obtain a beneficial interest in the Bungalow.

Are you claiming ownership of property based on a promise?

We are experienced proprietary estoppel solicitors and can advise on the merits of a proprietary estoppel claim.

We have helped many clients with family inheritance disputes. If you believe that you have a proprietary estoppel claim or you are facing one, then please contact us on 0808 139 1599 or email us at info@inheritancedisputes.co.uk for a free case assessment.