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Inheritance Disputes: what is proprietary estoppel and when might it affect you?

A recent case has illustrated the potential to bring a successful claim again an estate where a person is promised a share of an estate during the testator’s lifetime but no provision has been made in their will.

This area of law is known as proprietary estoppel and often involves farms, where a person has worked on the farm throughout their lifetime on the basis of a promise made that they would inherit a share of it one day.

Usually, these types of claims involve family members but in the recent case of Wills and Wills v Sowray, two brothers, Matthew and James Wills, were successful in acquiring a share of the estate of Anthony Sowray, a life-long friend, after being promised that they would inherit land from him after his death.

Mr Sowray’s estate comprised 50 acres of farmland, a farmhouse and various barns and outbuildings.  Matthew Wills occupied the farmland and James occupied a small plot of ½ acre where he lived with his wife in a log cabin.  It was the brothers’ case that Mr Sowray had made many promises to them over the years that the farmland would be left to Matthew when he died, and the plot of land to James.

Unfortunately, Mr Sowray did not make a will to reflect these promises and under the rules of intestacy, his daughter inherited his entire estate.

In order to succeed in the claim, the brothers had to show that clear assurances had been made by the testator that they relied upon, and that they suffered a substantial detriment as a result of relying on the promises.

Although the brothers said that promises had been made by Mr Sowray on many occasions that the land would be theirs, there was nothing in writing, as is common in these cases.

The case depended on witness evidence and many witnesses gave evidence as to the brothers working on the land and the promises that Mr Sowray made.

The lack of written evidence is often a feature of these type of cases and good witness evidence is therefore crucial to be able to bring a claim successfully.

The case illustrates the importance of making a will and keeping it up to date to reflect your wishes, in order to avoid the need for costly and lengthy trials in relation to an estate.

For help and advice about contesting a Will, please contact Wards Solicitors’ Contentious Trusts and Probate team.

Or if you need help and advice about making or reviewing your Will, please contact Wards Solicitors’ Wills, Probate and Mental Capacity team.

Wards Solicitors is one of the few South West law firms to have a dedicated team of specialists in resolving disputes concerning Wills, estates and family trusts.

Our lawyers are members of the Association of Contentious Trusts & Probate Specialists (ACTAPS), the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP), Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE) and the Law Society’s Probate Panel. All demand expertise and up-to-date knowledge from their members.

The team is praised by the independent Legal 500 Guide for 2020 for its excellent track record in dealing with high-value disputes over Wills, Trusts and Probate. It is also commended for its handling of cross-jurisdictional issues and assessing the merits of validity of Will claims and complex trust disputes.

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