Increase in legacies in Wills, increase in legacy disputes?

Part 5 - Proprietary Estoppel

19 July 2019

Part 5 of our charitable legacy disputes series looks at proprietary estoppel claims.

The law

Proprietary estoppel is an equitable concept which arises in circumstances whereby (1) there is a representation or assurance made to an individual that he or she has or will enjoy some right or benefit over the owner’s property and (2) the individual relies on that promise to his or her detriment. The consequent inheritance dispute comes to be upon the death of the individual who goes back on their promise and bequeaths the property to someone else.

These types of claims arise regularly in relation to farms and landed estates where the common theme in each case is a purported reliance by the adult child on a promise from their respective parents that one day the farm in question will be theirs.

Case study

The case of Rawlings v Chapman and others [2015] EWHC 3160 (Ch) was a proprietary estoppel claim defended by two charities. The deceased left the residuary of his estate to “such charities for horses as his executor … might select”. The executor chose The Horse Trust and the Society for the Welfare of Horses and Ponies who in turn became the effective defendants in a proprietary estoppel claim bought by Mrs Rawlings. She claimed that she had paid substantial amounts of money towards the cost of building and fitting out a new house on farmland owned by the deceased because she was relying on repeated promises from him that “this will all be yours one day”. Mrs Rawlings submitted to the court that she believed the words to mean that the deceased would one day leave the house and surrounding land to her in his will.

The judge found that Mrs Rawlings had not made out the essential elements of a proprietary estoppel and the claim was dismissed. He said “I find therefore that Mr Hopkins did not make any promise to leave the house to Mrs Rawlings, nor did he say anything which led Mrs Rawlings to believe, whether or not reasonably, that such a promise had been made. Her financial contributions were made, some might say naïvely, toward a hoped-for joint life with the man she loved and hoped to marry, but who turned out not to be willing to give the commitment or adjust his lifestyle in the way that she hoped. They were not given in reliance on any belief that she had been promised she would inherit the house, because she did not have such a belief”.


Top tips for charities

  1. Evidence is key. An early assessment on merits may be possible in these types of cases.
  2. Proprietary estoppel claims often come hand in hand with a 1975 Act claim.
  3. Always be mindful of negative PR implications and ensure that this aspect is carefully managed in parallel with any wider consideration of a potential dispute.


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