Friends of deceased win proprietary estoppel claim against daughter of deceased

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In a recent proprietary estoppel case, Wills and another vs Sowray, the Court decided in favour of the friends of the deceased rather than his only child. Proprietary estoppel is a legal claim concerning the disputed transfer of ownership and the rights to use of property of the owner.

In this case, the claimants, Matthew and James Wills, were friends of Anthony Sowray, the deceased, rather than his relatives. This was unusual as, in most cases of this kind, it is members of the deceased’s family who tend to pursue claims.

Mr Sowray owned a 50-acre estate comprising grazing land, a farmhouse, barns and outbuildings.  Having worked on the farm for more than 20 years, Matthew Wills occupied most of the land and its farm buildings, whilst James Wills lived in a house on small plot within the estate.

Mr Sowray promised Mr Wills that, when he died, Matthew Wills would get the farm. James Wills came to an agreement with Mr Sowray where he gave him a Jeep in return for the promise that he would be left the small plot of land where he lived.

However, Mr Sowray did not leave a valid Will and his estate passed to his estranged daughter who, under the rules of intestacy, was the defendant in the case. She was the sole beneficiary and the personal representative of Mr Sowray’s estate.

The two claimants issued a proprietary estoppel claim under which they claimed that the buildings and land should be transferred to them to fulfil the promises made to them by Mr Sowray. To prove proprietary estoppel, a claimant must show there was a representation or assurance, that he or she relied on that representation/assurance, and that the failure to meet such representation/assurance was to their detriment.

My Sowray had told Matthew Wills that he would get the farm when he died, an assurance which he therefore relied upon. The detriment he suffered was the considerable amount of work he’d completed on the farm over the years.

As regards James Wills, Mr Sowray made an oral assurance which he then relied on. This was to his detriment because he gave away his Jeep in response and bought and installed a log cabin on the plot of land he’d been promised.

In the case of Matthew Wills, the Court decided that all the requirements of proprietary estoppel were met and that not only did he have a right to be on the land, but he also had equitable interest in it. As for James Wills, the Court also decided in his favour despite the lack of a written agreement, agreeing that his expectations had been reasonable.

An order was made to transfer the land from the estate to Matthew and the plot to James, and the defendant was ordered to pay the claimants’ costs.

Proprietary estoppel claims are becoming more common and it seems more successful although many more are still lost than won. You need to be wary about making promises to people which they rely on if you do not want to store up trouble for after you’re gone and if you want those promises to be honoured it is much better to have your intentions written down, most usually in a Will, although sometimes an inter vivos transaction may be more tax efficient, than to leave your affairs unresolved, as Mr Sowray did here, costing both parties much in the way of emotion, time and cash.