The recent judgment in the case of Habberfield v Habberfield  EWHC 317 Ch is another of a growing number of judgments in which the claimant (and disappointed beneficiary) has pursued a claim on the grounds of proprietary estoppel (see previous blogs Proprietary Estoppel Claims - 2016 Case Update (Part 1) and Proprietary Estoppel Claims – 2016 Case Update (Part 2)).
In this case, Frank and Jane Habberfield ran a farming business in Yeovil as a partnership from 1975 (previously the farm had been run by Frank and his two brothers). Lucy, the youngest daughter of Frank and Jane, claimed that she had devoted her working life to the farm on the understanding that her father had assured her that she would eventually take it over when he retired.
Despite her leaving the farm in 2013 following a falling out with one of her sisters, there had been a history of arguments and litigation between family members about who would receive what for their work. Jane (who still lives on the farm) opposed Lucy’s claim on the grounds that neither she nor her husband had ever made any promises to Lucy and even if her husband had made such a promise, this could not bind her, nor would it amount to proprietary estoppel because Lucy had exaggerated the amount of work she had done on the farm. In any event, Jane alleged that Lucy had already received some benefits such as accommodation on the farm. Jane also submitted that it would be disproportionate to pass the entire farm to Lucy, and at best, a modest cash payment would be more appropriate.
Lucy had provided, by way of evidence, a letter from a surveyor who had written to Mr and Mrs Habberfield in 2008 regarding a proposal that Lucy should run the business as part of a limited partnership which should result in Lucy being the owner of the farm after her parents died with some of the property going to her brother and sisters.
In light of this evidence, the judge concluded that Lucy had proved her claim, but only to 45% of the farm, rather than the entirety of it. The judge was reluctant to split the farm property up (partly because Jane was still living there) and he therefore ordered Jane to pay Lucy the cash, which equated £1.17million.
So will a promise of potential inheritance be enough?
Proprietary estoppel claims are extremely fact sensitive, and reliant on the evidence given by the witnesses in court, meaning that the outcome can often be difficult to predict. In order to succeed in a case for proprietary estoppel, when relying on a promise made by someone who has subsequently passed away and not made good that promise in their will, a claimant must show that:
- There was a promise;
If the promise was orally (as is usually the case between family members), a claimant will have to show that at some point there was a conversation with the deceased, during which the deceased promised something. The conversation is often along the lines of “don’t worry, one day this will all be yours”, although the more substance there is to the conversation the better it is likely to be for a claimant.
These words (or conversations) must have lead the claimant to believe that he/she will be receiving something when the deceased passes away, but it later transpires that the deceased hasn’t left anything to them in their will reflecting what was promised.
There are no rules as to what amounts to a promise, but if there is evidence as to the deceased’s intention, this would be extremely helpful to a claimant’s case, particularly in circumstances where the main witness to a conversation is likely to be the deceased themselves.
The best evidence would be an independent third party who witnessed the conversation, or documentary evidence, which clearly had an impact on the Habberfield decision. However, in practice it is uncommon to have evidence of this nature, particularly when dealing with communications involving family.
- That the claimant relied on this promise; and
As a result of the promise that the deceased allegedly made, the claimant would have to show that they believed that this was a genuine promise and that they made some sort of serious decision based on this promise (for example, a lifestyle or career choice). An obvious example would be a claimant who has sacrificed his/her own career aspirations to help look after family or run a family business on the promise that they would receive the family home or business in the future.
- It was to the claimant’s detriment to rely on this promise.
The claimant must be able to prove to the court that they have suffered a detriment by relying on the promise that was made. For example, the claimant can show that they would have taken up alternative employment or not moved to a specific location had they not been promised a property.
The three elements above must be so evident that it would be unconscionable for the court to not grant relief. Even if the court agrees that the claimant should be successful, then the claimant will not necessarily receive what was promised by the deceased. The court will take into account the degree of detriment suffered by the claimant and will use its discretion to make an appropriate order.
In the case of Habberfield, the claimant also made an alternative claim for provision under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975. It is not uncommon for disappointed beneficiaries to run proprietary estoppel and Inheritance Act claims together as both claims involve the claimant alleging that he/she has not received provision (or reasonable provision) under a will.
The decision in Habberfield highlights again that each proprietary estoppel claim will be decided on its’ own merits and set of facts and it also confirms the importance of documentary evidence and/or independent third party evidence in order to prove that promises had been made by the deceased. It also highlights that the court has a discretion to make a range of awards which it considers are appropriate in all the circumstances, making these claims unpredictable.
Obtaining early legal advice is often crucial, because the factual accounts given by parties as to conversations that purportedly took place (often many years ago) will be scrutinised at a trial. It is therefore prudent to set out a case clearly and concisely from the outset, and seek to avoid inconsistencies in the accounts given further down the line, both in relation to the promises allegedly made and the reliance and detriment on those promises.