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Proprietary Estoppel

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Proprietary Estoppel: How to protect against ruinous disputes over property and broken promises.

In our latest blog, partner Robert Weston covers the sad case of a grandmother who lost her home following an expensive court battle with her daughter, and why it is a cautionary tale of the cost of promises.

When we buy a home, many of us think about whether one day it will be passed on to our loved ones. Many people then make a will setting out the plans for when we die.

“For farmers and other landowners across the UK it’s no different, except that it’s also quite common for that home to be the family business and for the one of the children to be working there. It’s also fairly common for the owner to promise that land will one day be handed over to that child. If that promise is not kept, then the child has a claim.”

If that promise is not kept, then the child has a claim in law. This is called proprietary estoppel. In short, if someone is assured that one day a property will become theirs and if they rely on that promise, such as working for many years on the farm instead of going off and getting another job, and if that means they have lost out by not getting the land after all, the courts will insist they get what they are due.

This is what happened recently in a very sad case, the likes of which we’re seeing more and more often. To give an overview, a woman in her fifties sued her own mother so that she could take ownership of the farm that her parents had been promising her since she left school in the early 1980s. The woman, represented by Chris Jones, a barrister we instruct here at mfg Solicitors, had worked on the farm her entire career but when her father died, her mother did not make good on the promise.

It was proved in court that the daughter acted to her detriment in working very long hours, 80-hour weeks including milking cows even while heavily pregnant, because she was acting on the promise that one-day she would take ownership of the farm.

It was a very difficult situation for the court, resulting in a woman in her 80s being told she would have to sell her home in order to pay the money she owed her daughter.

As sad as this case may be, there are ways to protect your property from this sort of claim. The first is not to make promises you can’t keep or where there’s a chance you may have to change your mind further down the line.

Another is to ensure you have proper succession planning in place and that you’ve taken proper advice in drawing up the plans. This means making sure everyone in the family who might expect to receive something after you die is aware of what is going to be theirs and what isn’t. It’s not a nice conversation to have, but it is far better than a ruinously expensive court battle with members of your own family very late in life.

Readers looking for more information can contact Robert through robert.weston@mfgsolicitors.com, or by calling 0845 55 55 321.

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