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How to enforce a broken promise?

A person making a Will is generally free to gift their assets to whoever they want. If they do not make a Will, then their assets will be distributed in accordance with the Intestacy Rules.

However, if the Will or the Intestacy Rules mean that a promise that a person made to someone before they died will be broken, the person who they made that promise to might be able to ask the Court to intervene, either by giving effect to the promise, or by awarding them a sum of money to compensate them for the broken promise. This is a legal concept known as ‘Proprietary Estoppel’.

A common example which has arisen in several recent cases is where someone spends years working on a farm – usually for little or no pay – relying on a promise that they will inherit the farm when the owner dies, only to eventually find the farm was gifted to someone else in the Will, or the Intestacy Rules mean it will go to someone else. In cases like this, sometimes referred to as ‘Cowshed Cinderella’ cases, there may be a good claim for proprietary estoppel.

Do I have a claim?

To bring a successful proprietary estoppel claim evidence of the following is needed:

  • a promise was made;
  • the promise was relied upon;
  • by relying upon the promise, the person suffered detriment: usually the detriment would be financial, such as passing up better paid employment opportunities;
  • the promise was broken.

If each of these can be shown, it is possible to ask the Court to compensate the person to whom the promise was made. This is usually done by awarding the person the asset they were promised, or a sum of money out of the estate.

The evidence needed to prove each of these will be dependent on the facts of each case. Whilst a promise made in a written contract would be useful evidence, often the promise was made verbally, making it harder (but not impossible) to prove. It is important to review the entire history of the case, when and how the promises were made, and what loss has been suffered as a result, in order to present a compelling argument that the promise should be enforced.

Is there a deadline?

Whilst there are no strict time limits for this type of claim, a delay can cause issues with the reliability of evidence and the recoverability of assets or money. A significant delay can even be raised as a defence to a claim. As such, as with any probate claim, we always advise our clients to take action and seek legal advice as soon as possible to give their claim the best chance of success.

How long does it take?

No two cases are the same: one case might be resolved within a few letters and in just a couple of months, whilst another might end up at trial which could take two years, if not longer. Whatever the case, we aim to cut through the key issues and find a resolution as quickly as possible, and will draw on our experience of negotiation to make this happen.

If you need any advice on broken promises, please contact a member of our dispute resolution team in confidence here or on 02920 829 100 for a free initial call to see how they can help.

To speak to one of our experts today, please contact us on 02920 829 100 or by using our Contact Us form for a free initial chat to see how we can help.

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