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£12m Inheritance promise claim fails
The deceased left his scrap yard (worth £12 million as development potential) to his wife when he died in 1987. When his wife died ten years later she left her entire estate to her daughter, excluding her three adult sons who she accused of letting the business going to ruin.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the eldest son sought to challenge the will by arguing a claim of proprietary estoppel. That type of claim requires there to have been a promise made (in this case by the deceased to the son), on which the son relied on to his detriment and which the courts decide is unjust for the father to have reneged on. Here, the son claimed he was told the valuable scrap yard land would be for the benefit of him and his siblings. In reliance on this promise, the son spent his working life working there and would not have otherwise done so.
The son claimed that the deceased made a variety of statements which should each be regarded as the necessary ‘promise’ including throwing deeds to the land on a kitchen table and saying to the children “get these in your names” (the deceased later left with the deeds) and the deceased offering to sell the business including the land to his children heap, stock and barrel and referring to the land being sorted out later. The son took this to mean it was also included in the sale.
The son’s claim failed because the court was not satisfied that the ‘promises’ were sufficiently clear and unequivocal. Whilst the son may have proceeded on a misapprehension, it was not a promise and the court would not enforce it as such.
The judgment is a reminder that in order to succeed in a claim for proprietary estoppel there needs to be clear evidence of a promise. It is not enough that one party believes there was a promise; the court must find evidence there actually was a promise.