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Propriety Estoppel in agricultural probate (probate of a farm)

There are some very strict rules to adhere to when dealing with land following the death of a loved one. The transfer of land is subject to rigorous rules pursuant to the Law of Property Act 1925, and transfers not conducted in line with these are not considered valid in law. This includes land that one believes they should inherit following a promise or gift, but where such promise or gift has not been formalised by a legal conveyance or the establishment of a trust.

What is Propriety Estoppel?

Proprietary Estoppel is a tool that a judge may use to make a decision on a transfer of property based on equity, rather than law. In brief, it provides another means by which a person may be entitled to a proprietary right, despite the absence of express intention and the appropriate formalities.

– Three factors to establish Proprietary Estoppel

If a Claimant can show that they have three elements, the judge may rule that the Claimant has an interest in the property, despite the legal ownership. These three factors are:

1) An assurance: that the property owner made a promise or representation that the Claimant would acquire an interest in the property.

2) A reliance: That the Claimant relied upon said promise of the property owner.

3) A detriment: That the Claimant suffered detriment as a consequence.

Moore v Moore

A recent example of a proprietary estoppel case is Moore v Moore [2016], whereby a son brought forward a case against his father concerning ownership of a farm.

In short, the farm was owned by the Claimant’s father and uncle. The Claimant began working on the farm from a young age and was continually promised by both father and uncle that he would eventually obtain full ownership of the farm. The Claimant’s uncle eventually left the farm, prompting the Claimant to replace him and become a partner with his father. As his father aged, he stopped working altogether and the Claimant eventually took over all responsibility of the farm and its operations.

However, the Claimant’s mother decided that gifting the entire farm to him would be unfair to his sister, and therefore persuaded her husband to change his will, leaving the Claimant with only a share in the farm.

The High Court ruled in the Claimant’s favour and awarded him the entire farm for the following reasons:

  • The father had made repeated promises to his son that he would inherit the entirety of the farming business.
  • The Claimant had relied upon these promises by devoting his entire working life to the farm and to the business.
  • In doing so, he had acted to his detriment, having given up any chance of alternative employment, due to the fact that he sincerely believed that he would inherit the farm from his father.
  • It would be unjust to allow the father to go back on his promise.
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