It is common for families to dispute agreements made relating to property. In a recent case, a father, his two sons and the wife of one of the sons became embroiled in a complex dispute over the ownership of a family property in Wimbledon.

The property had originally belonged to the father and his wife. When the wife died, the father moved to Alderney in the Channel Islands. For Inheritance Tax purposes he purported to transfer the property to his two sons as tenants in common with equal shares, ‘in consideration of my natural love and affection for my sons’. This was the apparent position in 1986. However, the married son and his wife claimed that in 2000 his father had agreed with them that the property would become theirs if they renovated it and maintained it at their expense.

The couple claimed that, relying on this promise, they invested a great deal of time, effort and money into the renovation and upkeep of the property.

Recently, the father and his other son went to court, claiming that no such agreement had been made. The couple had merely been granted permission to live in the property if they maintained it. It was their contention that any money spent by the couple on the house was not in reliance on any representations, agreements or warranties from either of them. The father claimed that the property still belonged to him.

The married son and his wife claimed that the father was either being unduly influenced by his other son or was of insufficient mental capacity to make his own decisions.

Miss Justice Black, following the ruling in Stack v Dowden and the legal doctrine of proprietary estoppel, decided that it would be unjust for the married couple not to receive the property after they had acted to their detriment as a result of relying on the promises made to them.

This was a multifaceted case and the judge concluded that before other aspects of it could be decided, it first had to be determined who was the rightful owner of the family property in Wimbledon. In doing so, Justice Black had to examine the original intentions of those involved. Her decision was that, taking all the relevant circumstances together, equity could only be satisfied if the ownership of the property were to vest in the married son and his wife