Undocumented Inheritance Promises Receive Greater Recognition in the Courts
Can verbal promises be expected in Law in an inheritance situation? The answer is: sometimes
The recent case of Thompson v Thompson (2018) highlighted the increasing frequency with which families end up in court over undocumented promises. These situations often arise when informal agreements are made, but not kept to (usually by a parent). The court will only seek to enforce such promises where the recipient of the promise has acted to his/her detriment, in reliance on the promise, in a manner they would not have done, had the promise not been made. Such promises are difficult to enforce and rely on a doctrine otherwise known as “promissory estoppel”.
In the Thompson case, the claimant – the son of a farming family – had worked on the farm his whole life for a reduced wage on the understanding he would inherit it. However, when his late father passed away, his mother failed to uphold the promise and instead sought to divide the estate between the claimant and his four siblings. When it was clear the mother was taking steps to change the agreement that his parents had reached with their son years before, the son came before the court to seek an order to prevent his mother from disposing of the property.
Although the evidence about the agreement was disputed ultimately the Judge felt that the son made out his case for promissory estoppel, in relying upon the promise to his detriment. This occurred in the form of him agreeing to work on the farm all his life, at a low wage, never seeking to purchase his own property and giving up the possibility of any independence or life outside of the farm. Importantly, this case reinforced the legal principle that the detriment does not need to be the expenditure of money or other quantifiable financial detriment, as long as it is something substantial.
In many of these cases, there are significant amounts of contradictory evidence brought before the court and often family disputes occur which are never resolved. In this case, two of the claimant’s siblings supported their brother’s claims regarding the promise made by their parents, despite the fact that this would reduce their share of the inheritance. As a result, the court ruled in the claimant’s favour.
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