What is proprietary estoppel?
In a proprietary estoppel claim, the following ingredients must be established:-
An assurance is made – a promise which raises a reasonable expectation that the Claimant will be given an interest in land;
The Claimant relies on the assurance;
The Claimant suffers a detriment as a consequence of reasonably relying on assurance; and
It would be unconscionable for the promise-giver to go back on the promise made.
If such a claim is established, the Court can intervene to grant a remedy if it considers it just to do so. The Court’s powers to do so are wide: they range from an award of money so the Claimant is not out of pocket, to transferring property into the Claimant’s name. There are some more dramatic awards which demand that the partnerships come to an end and family homes being sold, even despite this giving rise to an inefficient tax position. Such cases usually entail a long period of uncertainty, legal costs, and tend to deepen the mistrust and strained relationships. It is therefore prudent to consider the kinds of issues which are being seen to arise commonly, and plan to avoid conflict so far as possible.
What amounts to detrimental reliance?
In the case of Bradbury v. Taylor in 2012, where the clamant had moved house to another part of the country, and away from family, to provide companionship and care, this was held to be sufficient detriment. In Lothian v. Dixon  the claimants had moved from Scotland to Scarborough to support and care for a family member who later died was held to be sufficient detriment. This was despite the fact that had the benefit of living at the deceased’s property rent-free.
A proportionate remedy?
Whilst traditionally when considering remedies for proprietary estoppel claims, the Court will may look at the minimum necessary to do justice. In recent cases, the Court has tended to be more generous in their approach to such claims.
It is worth noting that in some of these cases, the claims were brought in circumstances where the people who had made the promises were still alive, and become defendants to the claim and the Court will consider the impact of any decision on them. When the promisor has died however, the estate and beneficiaries will be affected, but the Courts tend to be more willing to provide more generously for the claimant.
What steps should be taken to avoid a dispute?
Disputes often arise when succession has not been provided for and clearly communicated to all the family, or an event occurs which turns the expected course of events on its head. There really is no substitute for sitting down and talking about the future and understanding the needs and expectations of all those involved.
In summary, despite testamentary freedom (the right to choose what happens to your estate when you die) being a fundamental tenet of English law, it is important to recognise and plan for the eventuality that someone could challenge your will. Whilst no process is bullet-proof to a challenge, there are certain steps which are sensible to take:
Talk to your family, and friends and those who you wish to benefit from your estate
Seek advice from a will drafter and estate planner.
Record your reasons for making decisions, especially if what you leave in your will might raise eyebrows or which could have a negative reaction
Our Dispute Resolution team at Allan Janes are able to provide advice and act for both claimants and defendants in this specialist field.