Proprietary estoppel - broken promises

In rare cases, where a promise has been made and broken it can be enforced under US and English law. This is known as proprietary estoppel in the UK, and promissory estoppel or equitable estoppel in the US.

An example might be where someone moves house to care for a terminally ill aunt, on the understanding that they will be left money or a property in her will. However the aunt fails to modify her will before she dies, leaving everything to another relative. Or perhaps a daughter gives up her career to run the family farm believing that it will someday be hers, but is disinherited when she marries a man her parents dislike.

Bringing a claim

To bring a claim, you have to demonstrate three things:

- That there was a promise.
- That you did something (significant) in reasonable reliance on that promise.
- That what you did can be regarded as having incurred a burden or a detriment.

Our dedicated trust and succession disputes team bring and defend proprietary estoppel claims, enabling us to see both sides of any case. Whichever side we represent, we work to achieve a settlement out of Court where possible. However, we will take claims to trial in the face of unreasonable behavior.

One of our most notable recent successes actually involved us preventing a proprietary estoppel claim being added to a dispute over the ownership of a village in Dorset. Chettle, a village of around 30 cottages was originally left to our client by her mother in 1966. One of her brothers was left the rest of the stately home, Chettle House. Almost 50 years later, the brother and his son laid claim to a large part of the estate as a squatter, and alleged that our client was bound by an oral agreement from 1966 to leave the rest of the village to the son. According to our client’s brother and nephew, she was obliged by this agreement not to have children (she had a daughter in 1982).

Just three months before the trial, the claimants tried to amend their pleadings to include proprietary estoppel. We argued that the late amendments amounted to an abuse of the court process, and would prejudice proceedings against our client. The judge agreed and ordered the claimants to pay costs. Shortly afterwards the case resolved favorably for our client.

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Susan Favre

Acting for Susan Favre, who owns the village of Chettle in Dorset, England. Susan's brother and nephew claimed that Susan was required to leave the entire village to her nephew, based on a purported 1966 oral family agreement.<br /> Withers successfully defeated an attempt by the Claimants to amend their pleadings to introduce a significant new cause of action, proprietary estoppel. The claim settled on favourable terms shortly thereafter.<br /> The claim involved complex valuation questions, tax issues relating to agricultural land, and issues relating to adverse possession.

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