Proprietary estoppel in family farm inheritance dispute

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Proprietary estoppel is in the news again, with yet another family farm dispute ending up in court after a son was denied his inheritance. Proprietary estoppel solicitors Slee Blackwell review the case and summarise the legal principles involved with such claims. For details of an earlier farming proprietary estoppel case click here.

The basic principle of proprietary estoppel

The principle of proprietary estoppel, in very simple terms, is that when someone makes you a promise and you act on that promise, to your detriment, then the maker of the promise cannot renege on it.

We see it so frequently in family farm disputes because it is customary for children to work on the family farm, often putting in long hours for little return, on the basis that they will ultimately inherit the farm. In most instances this arrangement works well, but occasionally a family disagreement unrails it and this can set family members at loggerheads. The position is often complicated by the fact that these agreements are oral and there is nothing, or very little, in writing.

The legal requirements for proprietary estoppel

In order to bring a claim on the basis of proprietary estoppel a claimant must be able to satisfy the legal requirements. The essential features of a proprietary estoppel claim are:

(i) a promise or representation that has been made,

(ii) the recipient has relied upon the representation or promise, to their detriment, and

(iii) it would be unfair and unconscionable not to uphold or enforce the promise.

Gee -v- Gee: An example of proprietary estoppel in practice

In this case, the dispute centred around a farm in Oxfordshire worth around £8 million. It had been in the ownership of the Gee family since the early 1920’s and was currently held by John Gee senior, the father.

John Gee junior, his son, worked on the farm for his father for a period of around 40 years. He claimed that his father had repeatedly assured him that he would inherit the lion’s share of the farm. In reliance on that promise, John junior had devoted his working life to the farm, spending long hours working there for low wages.

However, following a falling out in 2014 between John senior and John junior, the farm was transferred to Robert Gee, another of John senior’s children.

John junior therefore pursued a proprietary estoppel claim. John senior argued that no outright promises or representations had been made to John junior and that he was free to deal with the land and family farm as he wished.

The court, however, found in favour of John junior. The judge agreed that promises had been made about John junior inheriting the farm and that he had relied upon those promises to his detriment. Accordingly, John senior was prevented, or “estopped”, from going back on his word.

The courts have quite a broad discretion as to the award that can be made, depending on what is considered to be fair and reasonable in the particular circumstances of the family dispute. In this case John junior was awarded a 52% share in the family farming company and a 46% share in the farm land.

Proprietary estoppel solicitors

As experienced proprietary estoppel solicitors we are well placed to advise on the merits of a proprietary estoppel claim. We can also consider whether related legal principles such as resulting trusts and constructive trusts will assist your case.

We are particularly experienced in dealing with family inheritance disputes involving land and farms.

So, if you have been made promises or assurances about inheriting, or if you are facing a proprietary estoppel claim, then please contact us on 0808 139 1606 or email us at [email protected] for a free case assessment.