It is often said that an oral contract is as good as the paper it's written on. Many family disputes have arisen because an agreement was made without appropriate documentation being created, and the courts are rarely willing to enforce such agreements.

A recent case concerned the estate of a woman who died in Cyprus. She was survived by eight children who each stood to inherit 1/8th of her estate. One of the main assets of the estate was a house in Haringey, valued at £260,000, which she had bought under the tenants’ right to buy scheme in 1988.

One of the deceased woman’s sons claimed that, prior to the acquisition of the property, there was an express agreement between himself, one of his brothers and their mother that they would own the property jointly, as she could not afford to buy it on her own. He claimed that he and his brother had agreed to guarantee the payment of the mortgage she had taken out to assist in the purchase.

The stated aim of the arrangement was to ensure that the woman could continue to live in the house throughout her life. After her death, her two sons would share in the financial benefit of ownership. However, in the event, the claimant did not meet the residence criteria necessary to participate in the purchase. He claimed that a decision was then taken for the purchase to be undertaken by his mother and brother alone, but that the agreement still subsisted and, as his brother had predeceased his mother, he was therefore beneficially entitled to the whole value of the property.

It appears that the mother and son had decided that the property should be held as a joint tenancy, which would mean that on the death of the other owner, the property would then be wholly owned by the survivor. Accordingly, the family was advised to create a trust deed to make the beneficial ownership clear, but this was not done.

The claimant brought a case against his mother’s executors, arguing that he had a beneficial interest in the property because he had at various points contributed financially to the cost of its upkeep and assisted with the mortgage payments.

In a trial lasting more than two days, a number of family members and other witnesses gave evidence that the claimant’s understanding of the situation was correct. However, in the absence of any formal agreement as to how the beneficial ownership of the property should vest or any evidence that the claimant had made a substantial contribution to the cost of buying and maintaining the property, the court was unwilling to agree that it should be his: he was awarded a ¼ share.