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Lack of Proof Stymies Claim Against Estate

A recent case shows clearly, yet again, how important it is not to rely on oral promises.

When a woman gave substantial sums to the man she was in a relationship with, she claimed she had done so because he had repeatedly promised that he would leave his property to her. Nothing was ever put in writing, however.

Their relationship lasted for many years. In 1985, they had become engaged, but continued to maintain separate homes.

In 1990, they had set about building a house to live in together. After the builders he insisted on using became insolvent, with the project incomplete, she eventually sold her own house and used some of the proceeds to finance the completion of the new property, which was owned in his name. By 1993, both of them were able to live there, despite there being no mains water and the water flow from the well on the property being inadequate.

Eventually, their relationship appears to have petered out and he formed a relationship with another woman. Although the former couple remained friends for more than a decade before he died, they effectively lived apart.

When the man died, he left the woman nothing, giving the bulk of his estate to various charities for horses.

She claimed that she should inherit the property on the basis of 'proprietary estoppel'. This is a legal doctrine which states that if a person has acted to their detriment (she had given him money) on the basis of representations made by another person that they would have, or come to have, a right over property (she expected to inherit the property she had helped finance), and the person who made the promise then unconscionably denies the right or benefit promised, then the promisor is 'estopped' (prevented) from denying what was promised.

Although it was clear that the charities had no direct knowledge of the circumstances existing at the time, they denied that the man had made any such promises and claimed that he was a 'notorious womaniser' who 'had relationships with several other women before during and after' his relationship with the woman, and that his character and the nature of those relationships made it unlikely that he would have intended to give away his property.

The judge hearing the case commented that in cases such as this 'the exact words used, the context and the intention behind them can be critically important, and of course it is difficult to make findings of fact about these matters where the representations were all oral, they were made many years ago, and they have not been recorded in any way since. The court must in my view be appropriately cautious in assessing witness evidence in relation to such representations.'

Taking all the evidence into account, the court ruled that the woman's claim must fail.

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    Before you advance a substantial sum to anyone else, or undertake to work for or provide a benefit to someone else in exchange for the promise of a future right, take legal advice, as failure to put in place appropriate legal safeguards can leave you without any redress if the promise made is broken.

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