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Inheritance disputes: are things getting tougher for those challenging wills?

by Mandeep Chima


The failure of a farmer's son to overturn his late father’s will illustrates the inherent complexities of inheritance disputes using the challenge of propriety estoppel in particular.

Newspaper reports tell how 60-year-old Sam James lost a legal battle with his elderly mother and sisters over the £3m estate which he claimed his father Allen had agreed to give to him on the basis that he worked on his father's farm.

Instead, when his father died, his will left the entire estate (a farm of 100 acres with livestock) to his wife and Sam James’ two sisters. Sam contested the will using a legal challenge called Proprietary Estoppel, claiming he was promised the land and it should therefore be transferred to him, but the High Court in London did not find in his favour.

Proprietary Estoppel – a promise made is legally binding

The law considers it unconscionable for a person to go back on a promise made about inheriting land or property (verbally or in writing) to someone else who then acts to their own detriment in reliance of that previously given assurance. In many cases this can involve the disgruntled beneficiary working for little or no pay for decades - the court heard Sam James left school early and worked for the family business for nearly 35 years.

Did relying on a promise given result in missed life and work opportunities?

That person would obviously be disadvantaged when that promise is not kept in a will. Relying on that promise, they may have chosen not to pursue other career options or explored other opportunities that could have been open to them or spent their own money on improving land or property which they believed they would one day inherit

Mandeep Chima, a solicitor in Shoosmiths contentious probate team explains:

‘That was certainly the case with a successful proprietary estoppel claim we recently concluded, although there it concerned a family business where our client had clearly acted to his detriment and had solid evidence of a promise being made.’

Courts now demand more evidence of existence and intent of promises given

The courts in this type of claim do seem to be adopting a much more conservative, sceptical approach than previously as to whether or not a promise had indeed been given and much more compelling evidence is now required to prove both the existence and the intent of such a commitment. Mandeep comments:

‘That’s the key in these cases – proving that a promise had indeed been made with the clear intent of inheritance rather than persuading yourself that you were being promised something when you were not, even if others might share your belief. If that is established, you would still need to show that, by relying on that promise, you suffered a detriment as a result of your subsequent actions, such as passing up other opportunities which resulted in your financial disadvantage.’

Financial disadvantage was not proven

It was that inability to demonstrate financial disadvantage that was also a crucial element in the judgement. Sam James had not worked for nothing in the family business, being particularly involved in the family’s haulage firm.

On the contrary, he had been made a partner and when the partnership ended he walked away with the haulage business, some land and £200,000 cash. As a younger man, he had also worked on the farm for pay at what the judge described as the 'going rate'.

His father had bought him cars, described in the accounts as 'bonuses' which were several times greater than his annual salary and Sam and his family had also been able to live rent-free on part of his father's land.

Upholding the will, the judge said the way the estate was divided up was 'rational and balanced' and demonstrated Mr James senior’s appreciation that the balance needed to be redressed between his three children since Sam had already received valuable land and cash from the dissolution of the family partnership.

The importance of getting expert legal advice in inheritance disputes

The challenge of Proprietary Estoppel is still possible and most frequently occurs in disputes involving land or property. The value of the estate in dispute need not be huge. Shoosmiths has dealt with cases where someone has sacrificed a career and marriage to look after an elderly relative in their own home (a modest end of terrace or semi-detached) relying on a promise, later broken in the will, that the house would be theirs.

Mandeep concludes:

‘Whatever the value of the estate in question, and whatever the basis of a challenge to a will, it is clear that the pendulum has swung back and courts now seem to be demanding much more compelling and convincing evidence before overturning a will. Inheritance disputes have never been easy cases to pursue, but without expert and specialist legal advice, disgruntled beneficiaries are likely to find that challenging a will becomes a much more difficult, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful process.’

Mandeep Chima
Solicitor - Contentious Probate, Professional Negligence
[email protected]
03700 86 6311



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