If somebody has given you a promise that you will receive inheritance and you have relied upon this promise, you might have a claim if they don’t leave you this inheritance in the end.
For example, John has worked on his uncle’s farm all his life. He had thought about going to college when he was younger, but his uncle told him that the land would be left to him after he died if John stayed and continued helping on the farm. John then decided it was best to stay and spend the money he had saved for college on improving the farm. However, now John’s uncle has died and he finds out that he was not left anything in the will. Is John entitled to anything from his uncle’s estate?
John might be able to rely on a concept of law called “Proprietary Estoppel”. This is where a property owner (John’s uncle) encourages someone to do something to their disadvantage (miss out on the college education, spend the money on the farm) in the belief that they will be given the property.
This article will look at Proprietary Estoppel and how it relates to wills and inheritance. If you are in a situation like John’s and you want to bring a claim against the estate of a deceased person, you must show three things: assurance, reliance and detriment (see below). If you can prove these, the Court can intervene and change the outcome of the will.*
Assurance: Were you assured that you would receive the property?
This can be a promise to you by the deceased when he was alive.
Reliance: Did you rely on the promise?
You must show that the promise would have influenced a reasonable person.
Detriment: Are you worse off now because you relied on the promise?
Detriment is usually the spending of money on the property, but there are other types of detriment possible.
There are a number of interesting cases in this area. In the following Irish cases, both Plaintiffs (the people who were promised the land) were successful in their claim:
1. Smith –V –Halpin (1997)– In this case, the Court ordered that Smith be given his father’s old house, even though it was not given to him in the will. When he was alive, Smith’s father suggested that Smith would extend the Family Home where the father lived, on the basis that he would inherit the house when his father and mother died. Smith carried out the extension at his own expense. However, after his mother and father died he found that the house had been left to his sister, despite his father’s promise. The Court said that the expenditure on the extension was evidence that Smith expected the house to be his after his parents died. As a result of this, the Court ordered that the house be given to Smith.
In this case, it is very clear that the three elements of assurance, reliance and detriment were established. Smith’s father encouraged him to build an extension to the family home (assurance). Smith built the extension (reliance) and used his own funds to do so (detriment).
2. McCarron –V- McCarron (1997) – The Plaintiff (the person who was promised the land) in this case had worked on a family farm for over sixteen years. This case did not involve a Will but Intestacy (where a person dies without making a will). The rules of intestacy said that the plaintiff was not entitled to the farm. However, he said that there was a promise that he would receive an interest in the farm as a reward for him working there. The Plaintiff had not given any money towards the farm but the court said that time could qualify as detriment and so there could be a claim in Proprietary Estoppel.
In this case, it is more difficult to establish the three elements of assurance, reliance and detriment than in the Smith case. However, the Plaintiff worked the farm for sixteen years on the understanding (assurance) that he would receive an interest in the farm and had spent time working the farm (reliance and detriment) and therefore was successful in his claim for Proprietary Estoppel.
Nobody knows how far a court will go with a Proprietary Estoppel claim. It is very much open to the Court to give the successful Plaintiff everything he expected or simply compensate the Plaintiff for the disadvantage suffered.