Broken Promises: What is Estoppel?

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We are often asked ‘What is estoppel?’, especially in the context of an inheritance dispute or contested Will claim. Solicitor Lee Dawkins provides the answers.

The calls we receive to our free legal helpline cover a huge variety of legal topics. In an average day we could field calls on issues ranging from a professional negligence claim against a vet, all the way through to a query about a discrimination in the workplace.

Some questions reoccur on a regular basis, so from time to time we cover the more important subjects in these blogs.

One particular repeat enquiry we receive concerns the doctrine of ‘estoppel’, particularly in relation to contested probate and inheritance claims. So, what exactly is estoppel?

Broken Promises.

Put simply, estoppel is a legal concept which can be relied upon when someone tries to go back on their word. The doctrine is used to prevent a party from arguing something contrary to what they have previously done or said.

English law has a number of different types of estoppel. Two of the most common forms of estoppel are proprietary estoppel and promissory estoppel. The two have broad similarities, but there are also important distinctions, the detail of which go beyond the scope of this blog.

Proprietary Estoppel.

The type of estoppel we deal with most often is proprietary estoppel, which is becoming increasingly common in the contested probate cases we encounter.

A proprietary estoppel claim of the type commonly arising in a disputed Will or inheritance case has three fundamental ingredients.

First, there needs to be a representation or assurance given to the Claimant. Second, there must be reliance on it by the
Claimant. Third, detriment must be suffered by the Claimant as a result.

It can also be said that the detriment suffered should be of a nature where it would be ‘unconscionable’ to go back on the promise or assurance given.

Example of Proprietary Estoppel.

An example of a proprietary estoppel argument in a probate claim is where someone has been assured that they will one day be left a property and on the basis of that assurance they work hard, for many years in some instances, repairing, maintaining and improving the property, only to find that the promise has not been honoured and they have received nothing in the owner’s Will. It is particularly common for estoppel cases to arise in farming families where a son or daughter works on the family farm on the understanding that they will one day inherit and then discovers they have been overlooked in the Will. Proprietary estoppel can be a very useful concept for the claimant to rely on in these situations, subject to being able to meet the technical requirements.

The conduct giving rise to the estoppel can also take different forms and can include estoppel by acquiescence, estoppel, by representation and estoppel by promise.

Constructive Trusts.

Another legal concept closely associated with Proprietary estoppel is the constructive trust. Constructive trusts also arise frequently in contested probate claims where there has been a common intention or bargain between the parties (often the claimant and the deceased) where, like estoppel, there has been detrimental reliance and an unconscionable denial of rights.

If you have lost out because a promise has not been honoured and would like to know where you stand then call our FREE LEGAL HELPLINE on 0808 139 1606 or send us an email.