Proprietary Estoppel – A Verbal Contract That’s Worth More Than the Paper it Isn’t Written On

23rd June 2019

For the average person, it is tempting to assume that nothing carries more weight in law than a properly prepared legal document, with perhaps the most obvious example being the will a person leaves behind after their death.

Although wills may sometimes be contested, it is generally the details of the will being challenged, or the conditions, not to mention state of mind, under which it was written.

The primacy of the written document is generally taken for granted, but the principal of ‘estoppel’ runs counter to this assumption, as demonstrated in a recent case involving the ownership of a £2.5 million estate and the future living conditions of an 82 year old widow.

Where there’s a will

The case of Habberfield v Habberfield illustrated the impact that estoppel or more accurately on this occasion, proprietary estoppel can have.

This case revolved around the Woodrow Farm farming business, which had been run by Frank and Jane Habberfield since the 1970s.

When Frank died in 2012 the entirety of the £2.5 million estate passed to his wife Jane. However, their daughter Lucy, one of four children, came forward to claim proprietary estoppel on the basis that both parents had told her she would take ownership of the farm when they retired – she had spent 30 years working with the dairy herd while also getting married and having a family of her own.

Jane Habberfield denied this claim, but when the case was first heard in February 2018, Lucy was awarded a cash sum of £1.7 million to be paid immediately, an amount chosen to represent the value of her share of the land.

Although the farmhouse in which Jane Habberfield lived wasn’t included in the settlement, it would have to be sold to raise the funds, so she appealed against the judgement on the grounds of fairness, but in May of this year the England and Wales Court of Appeal upheld the original decision.

To give an indication of the burden of proof required in a case of proprietary estoppel, the judge handling the original case found that:

  • From 1983 on, Frank Habberfield told Lucy on multiple occasions that she would take over running the farm when he was no longer able to do so.
  • Referring to the dairy herd, Frank told Lucy; “they are your cows, and if you want them, you should milk them”.
  • When Frank and Lucy discussed replacing the milking parlour in 1985, Frank stated that he did not know how much it would cost, and the responsibility would be Lucy’s.
  • When discussing factors like her long working hours, lack of time off and low rate of pay, Lucy was assured by her parents that the hard work would pay off, as she would have the farm when Frank and Jane could no longer run the farm – importantly, they both made these promises.
  • Lucy was told that if she took any time off, the cows would not be there when she got back.
  • When she requested a weekend away from the farm in 1992, she was told that she would have to stay and work if she really wanted the farm.
  • Frank would prevail upon Lucy to deal with farm employees, on the basis that they would one day be working for her.

Jane Habberfield also argued that she and her husband made Lucy an offer in 2008 that would have seen her receive a viable dairy farm, but Lucy turned the offer down. Jane therefore claimed that it was reasonable for Frank and Jane to ignore their earlier assurances and defeat Lucy’s rights under proprietary estoppel.

The clearest lesson to take from this case is given the right circumstances, verbal promises can have all the legal force of the most carefully drafted documentation. Whichever side of the matter you find yourself on, you will require professional legal advice from experienced lawyers, well-versed in the mechanics of estoppel in all its forms. However, Proprietary Estoppel should be no substitute for a properly-documented legal agreement such as (in this case) a Farming Partnership and Wills made by all parties so as to avoid the inevitable costs and emotional fall-out of a family dispute and litigation.

If you would like to discuss your needs or those of a family member or friend in more detail, please contact Adam Penn, an Associate Director in our Wills, Probate and Trusts team by email or by phone on 01543 431 196

Estoppel explained

Although it sounds a typically legal expression, in the simplest terms, estoppel is merely a judicial device used to prevent an individual from reneging on something they had previously promised.

It can also be used to prevent someone from making claims that run counter to the impression their previous actions might have given. As you might expect from a principle which undercuts the basis of most contract law, there are strict conditions to be met if estoppel is to be applied.

In this particular case, the issue revolves around proprietary estoppel, which means that the promise in question centred upon the ownership of property or land.

The majority of these cases take place when a person dies and leaves arrangements for the disposal of property in a will, only for another party to come forward and claim that the stipulations in the will run contrary to something the deceased had previously promised.

Of course, simply stepping up and stating that your millionaire uncle once said you could have his classic Ferrari when he died isn’t going to be good enough.

For a case of proprietary estoppel to be upheld – in other words, for an arrangement to be overturned on the basis of promises made earlier – certain conditions have to be met.

In plain English, these conditions are:

  • A promise was made.
  • The recipient took that promise at face value, believed it and relied upon it being true.
  • Believing the promise, the recipient then acted in a manner that means they will suffer in some way when the promise isn’t actually met.Jack is a farm labourer who, in addition to his other duties, spends many hours including his own time tending the farm’s small orchard. His reason for doing this is the promise the farmer has made to him, that when the farmer dies, the orchard will be left to Jack.The claim is based upon the fact that he believed the farmer’s promise, acted on this belief by working to maintain the orchard in excellent condition and that he will suffer detriment because his belief that the orchard would be his one day has meant he has not bothered to purchase any other.
  • Eventually, the farmer dies and the reading of his will reveals that no such provision has been made for Jack, who seeks legal advice and makes a claim for proprietary estoppel. This will seek to prevent the provisions of the will, where they concern the orchard, being carried out.
  • As a large percentage of proprietary estoppel cases arise in the agricultural and rural business sector, it’s probably useful to examine a hypothetical case: