A broken promise made by parent to child led to a claim of proprietary estoppel in the matter of Guest v Guest. The claimant, Andrew Guest, asked the court to right the wrongs of that broken promise, based on principles of justice, fairness, and unconscionability…
David and Josephine Guest were dairy farmers, they had three children, and prepared wills in 1981 leaving the farm on their death in equal shares to their two sons, on the basis that they would work on the farm after finishing school. Further to his parents’ assurances as to that inheritance, Andrew Guest lived and worked full-time on the farm from 1982, for which he received less than minimum wage.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Andrew and his parents deteriorated. In 2014 David and Josephine prepared new wills which excluded Andrew, the farming partnership between them was dissolved by David and Josephine in 2015, and Andrew was required to vacate the cottage he lived in on the farm. Andrew subsequently brought a claim of proprietary estoppel against his parents.
What is proprietary estoppel?
Proprietary estoppel can be broken down to ‘proprietary’ being a reference to property, and ‘estoppel’ being to estop (stop) a party from reneging on a promise. It can be claimed when a property owner (here David and Josephine), makes a promise of a right to property to another (Andrew) that is then not fulfilled. There are requirements to satisfy to establish proprietary estoppel though, which are:
Representation: an assurance made by the owner.
David and Josephine assured Andrew that he would inherit half of the farm.
Reliance: the claimant must have acted in reliance on the representation.
Andrew dedicated 30+ years to working on and developing the farm for less than minimum wage in the expectation that he would inherit half of the farm in time.
Detriment: relying on the representation caused detriment to the claimant, in a way that results in an unacceptable or unconscionable outcome.
Family farming businesses require significant time, effort and investment to maintain and develop. The work can be hard, wages low, holiday and pensions possibly non-existent, and there is missed opportunity to work or train elsewhere. These are examples of the type of detriment that could be suffered in these cases. For Andrew, following the breakdown of the relationship with his parents and being removed from their wills, he would have been left in his fifties with no home, job or pension, despite working hard on and investing in the farm’s development since leaving school.
If a claimant is able to demonstrate the above and is successful in their claim of proprietary estoppel, it effectively enables the court enforce the promise.
The High Court found that David and Josephine had given Andrew assurance over the course of 30+ years that he would inherit half of the farm and that Andrew had relied on that to his detriment. Andrew’s claim of proprietary estoppel succeeded and the Judge ordered a ‘clean break’ remedy which required a lump sum (which broadly reflected David and Josephine’s 1981 will – the value of 50% of the farming business and 40% of the farmland and buildings) to be paid to Andrew.
David and Josephine appealed the decision in the Court of Appeal. They felt the relief provided should have been based on what they had intended rather than what Andrew had expected to receive, that the relief went beyond what was necessary to avoid an unconscionable result, and that the relief should not have been granted whilst they were alive as Andrew’s expectation were that he would receive half of the farm on both their deaths. The appeal was dismissed and the issue referred to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court largely followed the initial decisions to provide Andrew with an immediate interest in the farm by way of a clean break settlement, but decided that this could be achieved by either putting the farm into trust for Andrew with a life interest for his parents’ (restricting David and Josephine’s ability to leave the farm to anyone else), or, by Andrew receiving an immediate (but discounted as a result of early receipt) payment of compensation, which would probably require the farm to be sold. David and Josephine were given the choice of remedy to provide.
The real lesson…
This case demonstrates the importance of taking all possible steps to avoid a dispute like this arising in the first instance, through succession planning, recording promises in writing when made and ideally formalised by deed, and updating documentation if and when agreements change.
If a dispute cannot be avoided, then the parties should do their best to negotiate and agree terms of settlement. Negotiations are not only restricted to remedies that the court can offer and so if successful, negotiations allow the parties more control over the outcome of the case. If settlement is not possible and the matter is referred to the court, then the court will have the power to decide if and how to enforce any assurance. In this case, the Supreme Court has given David and Josephine two options. If David and Josephine choose to put the farm into trust for Andrew, Andrew will need to find somewhere to live and a job to support himself until both his parents pass away, or, Andrew will receive a discounted sum of money now but again he will need to find somewhere to live and a new job, there will be no inheritance, and no autonomy of owning his own farm in the end. Although Andrew succeeded in his claim of proprietary estoppel against his parents, he now lives elsewhere and works for someone else on their farm. The situation is also difficult for David and Josephine who, if they choose to sell up in order to pay the discounted sum of compensation to Andrew, would likely also need to find somewhere to live and a way to make a living without the farm. The outcome of this case is therefore potentially not ideal or the outcome that either party would have actually chosen themselves. The importance of seriously considering and attempting negotiation with the aim of settlement is therefore clear, as a compromise may well be preferrable to the parties than what the court might instead order.
We can assist with succession planning to enable you to prepare appropriately and avoid a dispute similar to what is detailed above. We can also act for those who already find themselves caught up in a situation such as this one, and anyone looking to make a claim of proprietary estoppel should consider whether explicit promises have been made which they relied on and what detriment they experienced as a result. For more information, please contact [email protected].
Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.