MW’s specialist Inheritance Disputes Solicitor, Sharon Bell, discusses Promissory Estoppel in the context of a recent case.

An Enforceable Promise

The basic principle of Promissory Estoppel is that a promise is enforceable by law.  If a promise is made to a party and they act upon that promise to their detriment they can make a claim promissory estoppel.  For a claim to be successful the Claimant must show that:

  1. An assurance was made;
  2. that was relied upon;
  3. to the detriment of the promisee.

The above elements must be present to such a degree that it would be unfair not to grant relief. The Court will take into account the degree of detriment suffered and make an order which is appropriate.

Lothian v Dixon and Webb

In this recent case Mrs MacArthur made a Will in 1983 leaving half of her estate to her cousin Mrs Lothian and half of her estate to her sister, Mrs Webb.  In 2010 Mrs MacArthur was diagnosed with terminal cancer and asked Mrs Lothian to stay with her in her hotel in Scarborough. Mrs MacArthur told Mrs Lothian and her husband that, in return for them looking after her and helping her to run her hotel, she would leave her entire estate to them.

In the two years preceding Mrs MacArthur’s death, Mrs Lothian spent some nine months of each year caring for Mrs MacArthur and running the hotel.  Similarly, her husband would visit most weekends. 

Following Mrs MacArthur’s death it transpired that she had not updated her will to reflect her promise and the couple were due to receive half of the net residuary estate under the 1983 will.  Mr and Mrs Lothian brought a claim for proprietary estoppel on the basis that they had relied upon promises made by Mrs MacArthur to their detriment.

However, Mrs Webb contested that claim on the basis that, the outright transfer of the net residuary estate to Mr and Mrs Lothian was excessive and not reflective of the detriment that they had suffered.  Mrs Webb’s defence was that Mr and Mrs Lothian should be awarded an additional £40,000 plus travel expenses to reimburse them for the two years of care and management of the hotel.

His Honour Judge Roger Kaye QC, sitting as a High Court judge, disagreed saying that:

 “detriment is not a narrow or technical concept but must be judged in the round” and that it “need not be expenditure of money or other quantifiable financial detriment but it must be substantial”.

The case demonstrated that:

  1. there had been a promise
  2. there had been reliance upon that promise and that;
  3. detriment had been suffered

It was then left to the discretion of the judge to consider the appropriate relief. 

He found that Mr and Mrs Lothian had suffered detriment of a substantial kind in that they had altered their entire lifestyle in the run up to the deceased’s death and, although they had free board and lodging whenever they were at the hotel, the judge held that this was not meaningful compensation in the circumstances. 

Judge Kaye also ruled that Mrs MacArthur's promise was

“clear, certain and continued up to her demise”

and that

"there was a clear expectation that Mr and Mrs Lothian would inherit the entire estate."

The judge awarded the entire net residuary estate to Mr and Mrs Lothian.

The case demonstrates that the Court has a wide discretion when considering what awards to make in promissory estoppel cases and will consider all the factors.

We Can Help

Our Specialist Inheritance Disputes team can help with a wide range of inheritance issues.  If you think you have a claim for promissory estoppel or would like to take advantage of our free case review contact Sharon Bell or Hayley Bundey on 020 3551 8500 or email us at enquiries@mwsolicitors.co.uk

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