Friends Of The Deceased Win Inheritance Dispute Over Farming Land

The recent decision in the case of Wills and another v Sowray [2020] EWHC 939 (Ch) is an interesting one.

Usually in this type of case, it is the Deceased’s own family that pursue a claim in proprietary estoppel against the Deceased’s estate.

Rather differently in this case, the Claimants are in fact no relation to the Deceased. Notwithstanding this, they are ultimately successful in their claim to the detriment of the Deceased’s only child.

Wills and another v Sowray

Background

Matthew Wills (First Claimant) and James Wills (Second Claimant) were friends of Anthony Sowray (Deceased).

The Deceased had a large estate consisting of approximately 50 acres of grazing land, a farmhouse and various barns and outbuildings.

During the Deceased’s life, the First Claimant occupied the 50 acres of land and farming buildings and the Second Claimant occupied a small plot where he lived with his wife.

The First Claimant worked on the farm for over 20 years and was promised by the Deceased that upon his death the First Claimant would get the farm.

The Second Claimant had come to an agreement that he would give the Deceased a Jeep and, in exchange, the Deceased would leave the small plot of land to the Second Claimant.

The Deceased died intestate. His estate therefore passed to his estranged daughter (Defendant) under the intestacy rules. She became the sole beneficiary and the personal representative of the Deceased’s estate.

The First and Second Claimant issued a claim alleging proprietary estoppel claiming that the buildings/land should be transferred to them in line with the promises made by the Deceased in his lifetime.

Proprietary estoppel

To be successful in a claim in proprietary estoppel you must be able to prove the following:

  1. There was a representation or an assurance;
  2. The Claimant relied upon the representation or assurance; and
  3. The Claimant acted to their detriment.

In respect of the First Claimant, the Deceased made an oral assurance that he would get the farm on the Deceased’s death. The First Claimant relied on this assurance and suffered a detriment as a result, namely he did a considerable amount of work on the farm over a period of 20 years.

In respect of the Second Claimant, the Deceased made an oral assurance whereby in exchange for a Jeep the Second Claimant would be entitled to the small plot of land. The Second Claimant relied on this assurance and acted to his detriment by giving the Jeep to the Deceased, buying and installing a log cabin on the piece of land and arranging electrical connections.

Decision

The Court took the view that the First Claimant had met all of the requirements of proprietary estoppel and as such the First Claimant not only had a right to be on the land but in fact had an equitable interest in it.

The Court took the view that the Second Claimant had met all the requirements of proprietary estoppel irrespective of the fact that there had been no agreement in writing with the Deceased. The Court were particularly receptive to the fact that the Second Claimant’s expectations had been reasonable and not out of proportion to the detriment he had suffered.

The Court made an order requiring the transfer of the land from the estate to the First Claimant and the plot to the Second Claimant. The Defendant was ordered to pay the Claimant’s costs.

Wills SowrayHow can we help?

Ruby Ashby is a Solicitor in our expert Inheritance Disputes team.

For advice on any queries relating to the topics discussed in this article, please call Ruby or another member of the team in Derby, Leicester or Nottingham on 0800 024 1976 or contact us via our online form.

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