Contesting a will: Do verbal promises count, and does a disappointed beneficiary have the law on their side?

Julia Fenton, Associate Solicitor at Morrish Solicitors. Picture – suppliedJulia Fenton, Associate Solicitor at Morrish Solicitors. Picture – supplied
Julia Fenton, Associate Solicitor at Morrish Solicitors. Picture – supplied
Disputes about money and property can add to the heartache after a death.

Disappointed beneficiaries regularly contact Yorkshire legal firm Morrish Solicitors following the death of a family member.

While a written will often helps to give clarity, verbal promises may not necessarily be honoured. Can the law help with broken promises and solve inheritance wrangles?

Julia Fenton, Associate Solicitor at Morrish Solicitors discusses what (if any) steps can be taken if someone doesn’t honour in their will a promise they made during their lifetime.

Don’t bet the farm on a verbal promise – how the law could help in inheritance disputes. Picture – suppliedDon’t bet the farm on a verbal promise – how the law could help in inheritance disputes. Picture – supplied
Don’t bet the farm on a verbal promise – how the law could help in inheritance disputes. Picture – supplied

What the law says

Cases of this nature are often associated with high value estates or arise within the agricultural sector. The law can intervene in cases like this using a process known as ‘proprietary estoppel’. To be successful in a claim for proprietary estoppel, a claimant must be able to demonstrate three things:

1 A promise

In most cases, it is not until the will is read that someone becomes aware of a broken promise. For example, it may be that land, property, money or other chattels which were promised to the claimant have been left to someone else.

Fenton says: “There are no set rules about what amounts to a promise. The court will hear evidence from the claimant, and any other witnesses in support, about the circumstances in which a promise was made. The court will then decide, balancing this evidence against evidence from other people with a competing interest.”

2 Reliance on a promise

It is not simply enough for a claimant to demonstrate that a promise was made. They must also be able to demonstrate that they made decisions that have affected their life based on that promise.

Fenton adds: “For example, the child of a farmer may choose to stay and work on the farm for little or no pay, on the basis of a promise that they will one day inherit the farm.”

3 Detriment

A claimant must have suffered harm (known legally as detriment) by relying on the promise made to them. This is usually financial detriment, but the court will consider other forms of detriment.

Remedy

Even if the court is satisfied that a claimant has demonstrated all three of these elements, it not a guarantee that the court will decide in their favour.

Fenton continues: “The overriding consideration for the court in these circumstances is to achieve a fair outcome. The case will be considered in the round, with the court balancing any detriment suffered by a claimant with any benefit received.”

Other potential claims

Frequently a claim for proprietary estoppel is associated with a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 and a claimant should be aware of the short and strictly enforced time limits for those cases.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

No matter what the type of dispute, the court will encourage the use of mediation, or some other form of alternative dispute resolution to assist the parties in reaching a settlement.

Fenton concludes: “As cases involving proprietary estoppel are often fiercely contested, they can be extremely costly. Engaging in mediation can often achieve a result the parties are content with without the parties racking up huge legal costs.”

Morrish Solicitors dispute resolution services can be provided in-person, over the phone or by email or post. If you would like more information on contested probate, mediation, or any other type of dispute resolution, contact [email protected] or call 033 344 9600. Alternatively, you can make an appointment at their head office in Leeds city centre, or one of the branches located at 51a High Street in Yeadon and at 9 Lowtown in Pudsey.