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Jason Oliver | 11th September 2023

Farming inheritance disputes: understanding proprietary estoppel


Jason Oliver | 11th September 2023

Farming inheritance disputes: understanding proprietary estoppel

Inheritance disputes relating to farms have become increasingly common, especially where the business is managed as a traditional family arrangement. Very often, the legal principle of proprietary estoppel is relied upon by claimants who do not receive what they expected to.

What is proprietary estoppel?

Proprietary estoppel can be used to protect a person who has been promised property or some other benefit by another party. To make use of the principle of proprietary estoppel, the person who has suffered detriment must prove that the promisor made a binding promise and subsequently breached it. Furthermore, they must be able to show how they have suffered harm as a result of this breach.

Causes of inheritance disputes

Farming families face unique challenges when it comes to inheritance disputes. Farms often represent a significant part of the family’s wealth. When things go wrong, the consequences can be dire. The root cause of an inheritance dispute is often the lack of a valid estate plan. When a family member dies without a will, the rules of intestacy will apply. These dictate how an estate is divided between family members. The rules of intestacy will not take into account any promises made by the deceased, particularly when there are complex family relationships involved, such as stepchildren or second marriages. Even a will may not fully reflect the deceased’s intentions if it is not carefully drafted.

Broken promises

Another common reason for inheritance disputes within farming families is broken promises. It’s not uncommon for relatives to make informal agreements about who will inherit what, or who will run the farm after they’re gone. Unfortunately, these agreements are not always honoured. Without any formal written evidence of the agreement, it can be difficult to prove what was agreed to and by whom, especially if the person who made the promise is dead and cannot be called upon to confirm what they had intended to do.

Working for ownership

In some cases, family members may have worked on the farm for many years for little or no pay with an expectation of eventual ownership. However, due to a verbal promise not being fulfilled or an agreement not being made in writing, this expectation may not come to fruition. This can lead to disputes.

Proprietary estoppel in practice

Most of the leading cases in proprietary estoppel involve a dispute involving agricultural property. Although the overwhelming majority of disputes arise after the death of the proprietor, the principle can be used during their lifetime in the event that they change their mind in respect of promises made.

To succeed in a claim for proprietary estoppel, there are three main criteria that must be met:

  1. a clear promise must have been made;
  2. that promise must have been relied upon; and
  3. the failure to honour the promise must have been detrimental to the person who relied upon it. Although there is no precise formula for determining the detriment, it must be enough to make it unconscionable for the person making the promise (or, more commonly, their estate) to go back on their word.

It is important to remember that proprietary estoppel claims can be complicated and require extensive legal knowledge and support to secure an outcome in your favour. Around 90% of cases are settled out of court, either through mediation or negotiation between solicitors. However, if a matter goes to court, it can take years to resolve fully. It is therefore essential to obtain the right legal advice from a specialist solicitor who has extensive experience in dealing with these types of disputes.


Inheritance disputes within farming families can be emotionally and financially devastating for everyone involved. Proprietary estoppel often provides a way for people to assert rights to very valuable property that may have arisen fairly informally, often without much in the way of paperwork but with much investment in the form of cheap or free labour.

If you are involved in a family farm dispute then contact Jason Oliver who will be able to help you.

Explore our comprehensive range of services at our Agricultural Land, Farms & Estates web page to discover additional ways we can assist you.


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