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Contentious Probate

A farmer who claimed that he should inherit the farm from a deceased relative who died intestate has won his claim in the House of Lords relying on proprietary estoppel. After three Court hearings and an estimated £400,000 in legal costs Thorner v Major & Others [2009] has finally been decided. Proprietary estoppel comes into play where a representation is made which is relied upon by the claimant who then suffers a detriment as a result of that reliance. The doctrine first resurfaced in the courts in 2008 in the case of Yeoman’s Row v Cobbe after an absence of more than 100 years. The case of Thorner involved a Somerset farming family. The deceased, Peter, was cousins with the claimant’s father. The claimant, David, worked on the farm without pay for almost 30 years. In a Will made by Peter in 1997 David was due to inherit the residue of his estate, including the farm, but the Will was destroyed to remove one of the pecuniary legacies. When Peter died in 2005 no new Will could be found. In order to inherit against the intestacy rules (which would have left the estate to Peter’s blood relatives) David would have to show that he had been promised to inherit the farm and that he had suffered a detriment by relying on this promise. David claimed that he had acted to his own detriment by working unpaid on the farm for over 15 years as he had relied on the representation that he would eventually inherit the farm. The case was initially referred fro mediation but this failed due to the amount of money involved. David sued the administrators of the estate, the deceased’s sisters. In the first instance the High Court found in favour of David but this was reversed by the Court of Appeal who stated that there were special requirements relating to the nature of the assurances given. The House of Lords approved David’s appeal stating that there were no such requirements as long as there was a ‘sufficiently clear and unequivocal representation to establish a proprietary estoppel’. David will now receive the farm and its related assets worth about £1.2 million while the contents of a separate bank account amounting to £725,000 are retained by the estate. David had not known about these funds so could not have claimed reliance on receiving them. Further litigation could ensue due to the sale of certain assets by the administrators while David obtained leave to appeal.

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