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The Benefits of Leaving a Will and Claims of Proprietary Estoppel

It is always a good idea to leave a Will setting set out how your estate is to be handled. Time and time again, family disputes arise as to how property is to be distributed when people either fail to leave a Will, or leave one that is outdated compared to current circumstances.

On such dispute was highlighted in the recent case of Davis v Davis and others [2015], which came about when a fathers Will, the contents of which was unknown to his family members, was disclosed on his death. The Will revealed that the farm was to be left to his son until he was 60 (or died earlier), after which it was to be sold with the proceeds being divided between the son’s siblings and his children.

This differed from what the son had been promised by his father, as the son believed that the farm would eventually be left to him outright. The son claimed that he was promised the farm by his father and that he should receive it regardless of what his father’s Will stated. 

Unfortunately, the family could not agree on how the estate should have been divided so the matter went to court. It was there that the son argued that because:

•    he had worked long hours on the farm for low pay since the age of 16, whilst his other siblings had gone on to pursue other careers; and
•    he had contributed money into the farm and had carried out improvements to the farmhouse and farm; and
•    he had bought nearby land to use with the farm,

he was beneficially entitled to the farm by the doctrine of proprietary estoppel.

For a claim in proprietary estoppel to be successful, the claimant must show that they were promised a right over something (e.g. property), they relied on that promise and that they acted substantially to their detriment as a result of the promise. Of course there is no guarantee that the Claimant will get all that they were promised, but the court will grant what it considers appropriate when taking into account the detriment suffered.

In the case of Davis, the Court found for the son, agreeing with the son’s arguments given above, and further saying that the conduct of the parties gave rise to the conclusion that if the son worked on the farm throughout his life, he would one day inherit it. 

This case covered nothing new, but is a clear reminder that disputes regarding succession planning can be avoided by having Wills which match your intentions, and by keeping other family members involved in the decision making.

For further information on updating your Will to reflect your current succession plans, or to receive advice on a potential proprietary estoppel claim, please contact Ben Gallafant at