We are seeing more and more cases making headlines involving challenges to Wills, and in farming families these are often interlaced with what is known as “proprietary estoppel” in cases where a Will or business decision does not pass on property in line with promises made and relied upon. In brief, proprietary estoppel is a claim based on a son/daughter saying that land and/or property, usually a farm, should have passed to him or her in a Will because: a) a promise was made to them that they would be the ultimate recipient of the farm; b) they relied on that promise and made life choices with that promise in mind; and c) they worked on the farm during their lifetime for little or no payment and therefore acting to their detriment relying on the promise. Often such promises are only made verbally, and not put in writing, and therefore a “falling out” later in life can result in the promise being reneged upon, or the onset of dementia or other incapacity in the parent who made the promise so they are unable to make their last Will or remember promises. The farming son/daughter who loses out in such cases will have no choice but to bring a propriety estoppel case, however they can be difficult to prove.

Two cases about to be decided are Shaw v Shaw and Moore v Moore.  In Shaw v Shaw, Clive Shaw has brought a propriety estoppel claim against his parents on discovering they had written him out of their Wills. He claims he worked on their farm from a young age without pursuing any other career opportunities on the promise he would inherit the £1m farm. However his parents have now left the bulk of their estate to his sister, and argue he was incapable of managing the business and “hated cows”. Mr Shaw believes the Will was changed simply because his mother does not like his girlfriend. The judge is due to give his decision in early November 2018.

The second case of Moore v Moore is more complex, as it involves not only a dispute between father and son, but also between the son and the farming company, which was set up for tax reasons, to which many of the farm assets were transferred. The son claims an equitable interest in his father’s share of a farm and farm assets by way of proprietary estoppel, including over the farming business which owns the freehold land. After years of working together in partnership (with the father having 51% and son 49%, when the father’s health began failing and the son started to take more of the lead in decisions, relations between the two became difficult and the father dissolved the partnership. The case is further complicated as the father has since been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and lacks the capacity to conduct the proceedings, so his wife has been appointed as his litigation friend. The judge has clarified that the issues in this case are: a) whether there were promises to the first defendant (son) by his father that he would one day have his father’s share of the farm and the assets; b) whether there was any reliance by the son on those promises; c) whether there was detriment; d) whether it would be unconscionable for the father to withdraw from the promises; and e) what order should be made to give effect to proprietary estoppel. The judge is due also to give his decision this November.

We are currently advising clients who have propriety estoppel claims with their parents’ estate, and if you would like to talk about your own situation please contact Hugh Townsend.


Hugh Townsend

Hugh Townsend

01392 823935