The Court of Appeal has upheld a successful claim of proprietary estoppel after a father failed to provide for his son under his will. The case Suggitt v Suggitt & Anor [2012] EWCA Civ 1140 reaffirms the view that every challenge to the validity of a will should be looked at on its own merits.

The claimant’s father was a farmer with an estate comprising 400 acres of farmland and property, totalling £4m. The father died in 2009, leaving his entire estate to his daughter. No provision was made for his son, who had worked on the farm his whole life, and lived in a property on the farmland with his family.

The son had been written out of the father’s will over fifteen years earlier, when he dropped out of agricultural college and spent £38,000 of inheritance monies in less than a year. The father’s will provided for the claimant’s sister to give him the farmland, if he proved to be capable of working and managing the farm.

The claimant son submitted two claims, firstly under the Inheritance Act and secondly, based on proprietary estoppel, with the backing of his mother and two other sisters.

In order to successfully argue proprietary estoppel, the claimant needed to show that he had been given an assurance, and that he had relied upon that assurance to his detriment. It was argued on appeal that the weaker the assurance, the stronger the evidence required to establish reliance and detriment.

The son had worked on the farm for his whole lifetime, but was never paid for his work, and had expected to inherit the farm. Despite commenting that the son’s evidence was “opaque”, HHJ Kaye QC found that he had clearly relied upon the promises made by his father that he would inherit, and that in relying upon the promises made, he had acted to his detriment. The father had failed to make “reasonable financial provision” for his son.

HHJ Kaye QC was persuaded that on the balance of probabilities, the son had “positioned his whole life on the basis of the assurances given to him and reasonably believed by him”. On that basis, the son’s claim was successful, and the son was awarded the farmland and a property, totalling £3m.

The Court of Appeal did not seek to interfere with the judge’s decision, it would only do so if the judge’s judgment was perverse or clearly wrong. Rather, the question faced by the Court of Appeal was whether the judge’s award was out of all proportion to the detriment suffered by the claimant.

However, the Court of Appeal was satisfied with the judge’s decision. Giving the claimant all of the farmland and a property, being three quarters of the father’s estate, was not found to be out of all proportion, and the appeal was dismissed. Both parties’ applications for permission to appeal on what should be included within the relief granted by the court, and the issue of costs, were refused.

This case appears to go further than previous decisions in seeking to rectify injustice following a broken promise. We often see cases where individuals work and help run family farms, without receiving any remuneration, but with the expectation that they will eventually inherit the farm estate. The case highlights the importance of succession planning, both on death and during a lifetime, in order to avoid future disagreement between family members, and the inevitable litigation that will ensue.