A recent decision in a court which saw the friends of the deceased rather than the man’s only child awarded a claim in proprietary estoppel has been detailed in a report on the Nelsons Law website.

Proprietary estoppel is a legal claim connected to English land law concerning to the rights to use of the property of the owner and often used in connection with disputed transfers of ownership.

In most proprietary estoppel cases, the deceased’s own family pursue the claim against the estate. But in the Wills and another vs Sowray, the claimants were not related to the deceased.

Farmhouse, barns and outbuildings

Matthew Wills (first claimant) and James Wills (second claimant) were friends of Anthony Sowray (the deceased). Mr Sowray had a large estate, including some 50 acres of grazing land, a farmhouse, barns and outbuildings. When he was alive, the first claimant occupied 50 acres of the land and its farm buildings while James Wills lived on a house on small plot with his wife.

Matthew Wills had worked on the farm for more than 20 years. Mr Sowray promised Mr Wills that when he died, Mr Wills would get the farm. James Will came to an agreement with Mr Sowray where he gave him a Jeep in return for the promise that he would be left the small plot of land where he lived.

However, when Mr Sowray died, he did not leave a valid will and his estate passed to his estranged daughter, the defendant in the case under the rules of intestacy. She was the sole beneficiary and the personal representative of Mr Sowray’s estate.

Fulfilment of promises

The two claimants issued a claim that alleged proprietary estoppel. The buildings and land should be transferred to them in fulfilment of the promises made by Mr Sowray when he was alive.

To prove proprietary estoppel, a claimant must show there was a representation or assurance, that he or she relied on that representation/assurance, and the claimant acted to their detriment.

My Sowray had told the first claimant he would get the farm when he died, and the first claimant therefore relied on the assurance. The detriment he suffered was the considerable amount of work he’d done on the farm over the years.

Acted to his detriment

Again, in the case of the second claimant, Mr Sowray made an oral assurance the second claimant then relied on. He acted to his detriment because he gave his Jeep away and bought and installed a log cabin on the plot of land he’d been promised.

The court decided the first claimant met all the requirements of proprietary estoppel, and that not only did he have a right to be on the land but had equitable interest in it. And despite the lack of written agreements in the case of the second claimant, the court also decided in his favour, agreeing that his expectations had been reasonable.

An order was made to transfer the land from the estate to the first claimant and the plot to the second, and the defendant was ordered to pay the claimants’ costs.

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