Broken promises: Contesting wills and estoppel

For further guidance on contesting wills and estoppel contact our helpline. We offer a free case assessment service and no win, no fee funding. Call 0333 888 0409 or email us at [email protected] 

In this short article we summaries the legal position in relation to contesting wills and estoppel.

What is estoppel?

The doctrine of proprietary estoppel in simple terms refers to a situation where someone suffers detriment as a result of another person’s broken promise. It gives the person who has lost out the chance of acquiring a proprietary right to property which they don’t legally own.

Contesting wills and estoppel often go hand in glove. This is because the principle of estoppel is often relied upon by family members where promises have been made about what will be left to them in a will and they have acted to their detriment in reliance on those promises.

What do I have to establish to succeed on an estoppel claim?

The 3 main constituent parts of proprietary estoppel are: –

  • A landowner induces, encourages, or allows a person to believe that he has or will enjoy some right or benefit over the owners property;
  • In reliance on this belief, the person acts to his detriment to the knowledge of the owner; and
  • The owner then seeks to take unconscionable advantage of the person by denying him the right or benefit which he expected to receive.

Example of an estoppel claim

One recent case relevant to contesting wills and estoppel is Davies and Anor v Davies. In this case Eirian Davies worked on her parent’s farm after she finished school. She did not earn a wage but was given lodging and board at home, and money for clothes and leisure, a scooter, and had use of a car. The benefits were substantial but less than full recompense for the work she did. There were many periods over the next 30 years where Eirian stopped working at the farm and left. These were mainly due to family arguments.

During the time Eirian worked at the farm she was promised that she would inherit the farm, or become a partner. The latter was even enshrined in a partnership agreement at one point which Eirian signed but her parents did not.

Eirian was led to believe on several occasions that she would be left the farm upon her parents’ death. She was shown draft Wills which her parents had signed leaving Eirian the farm. This however was changed to leave one third each to Eirian’s two sisters and one third in trust to Eirian’s daughters. This again was changed to one third to each of Mr and Mrs Davies 3 children.

At trial the Judge ruled that Eirian had an interest in the farm on the basis of promises made by her parents on which she relied to her detriment. At one stage Eirian had given up a career to return to the farm at the beckoning of her parents. It would be unconscionable for her parents to now deny her equity in the farm or the farming business. An award of £1.3m was made.

This decision was appealed by the parents. In the appeal it was found that the daughter’s successful proprietary estoppel claim would not necessarily involve an entitlement to an immediate beneficial interest as the original Judge had ruled. The monetary award was therefore reduced to £500,000.00.

The core issue in the appeal was whether Eirian’s reliance on the promises made by her parents gave rise to sufficient detriment so as to entitle her to a share in the ownership of the family farm. This case is notable as Eirian was awarded monetary compensation as opposed to a proprietary interest on her parent’s land. Whilst proprietary estoppel was found in this case it was agreed by the courts that Eirian’s benefit should be that of monetary compensation as she knew at intermittent periods over the years that she may not get the farm itself. At one point she had given up on the farm and thus it would not have been reasonable to award a proprietary interest in the farm or the business.

This decision favours prospective defendants more than the case of Liden v Burton. If a defendant can show that the claimant had at any point known that they were not going to receive the benefit or had actually given up on this they may not be awarded a proprietary interest. However defendants still have to be wary as the claimant may nevertheless be entitled to compensation as was the case in Davies.

How we can help you

If you have suffered financial loss as a result of a broken promise or would like to know more about contesting wills and estoppel then contact our dedicated helpline. We offer a free case assessment service and no win, no fee funding.

Call 0333 888 0409 or email us at [email protected] 



Broken promises: Contesting wills and estoppel