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Proprietary Estoppel: Broken Promises, Family Farm Land, houses & other assets

The ownership of family lands can cause a breakdown in relationships within a family particularly after someone passes away where a relative who expected to receive lands does not. In certain circumstances the law will allow a person to enforce a promise for the ownership of lands against the person who made the promise or against that person’s estate. This is known as the doctrine of proprietary estoppel.

What is a proprietary estoppel claim?

Proprietary estoppel allows you to enforce a promise from someone else in relation to the ownership of lands where you have reasonably relied on that promise and would suffer detriment if the promise was not fulfilled. This type of claim allows the promise to be enforced despite there being no contract, written or otherwise, between you and the person who made the promise. The key ingredients are: a promise, reliance on that promise and detriment caused by the reliance on the promise.

Proprietary estoppel cases tend come up in relation to agricultural land. The typical example is that of the farmer who has always worked lands belonging to his or her parents on the promise that the lands would be his/hers on the death of the parents instead of leaving the lands equally between all of the children. One of the parents passes away leaving everything to their spouse who then has a change of heart and decides to amend his or her will to leave everything equally between the children instead of leaving the lands to the child who has farmed them. Depending on the circumstances that child may have a claim based in proprietary estoppel which, if successful, would stop the lands from being distributed in accordance with the Will and could provide an interest in the lands to the child who worked the land.

What constitutes a promise?

The basis of a proprietary estoppel claim is that the owner of the land has promised the land to you. Generally a Court will want to be able to point to a specific event when the promise was made and it will want that promise to be clear and unequivocal. However, this does not always have to be the case and the promise can be based on the words or actions of the original land owner over a lengthy period of time or even his or her silence on the issue whilst letting you continue working on the land.

How do I show reliance?

It is easy for someone to say they have relied on a promise. However, a Court will look at all the circumstances and will need to be persuaded that your reliance on the promise was reasonable in those circumstances. Was the promise vague? Was the interest in the lands contingent on something that never happened? The Court will consider everything and decide whether it was reasonable for you to rely on the specific promise or actions of the original land owner.

How do I show detriment?

Detriment comes in many forms. The Court will primarily consider financial detriment: have you given up working elsewhere and relied on receiving income from the lands? However, the Court will consider non-financial elements as well. For example a Court may consider that the fact that you have given up on being able to purchase your own home on the expectation of receiving the lands can be a form of detriment.

Overall the Court will consider whether, in the context of the detriment you have suffered, it is unconscionable to allow the promise to be broken.

What happens if I prove my claim?

This will depend on the nature of the detriment you have suffered and what reliance you placed on the promise. The Court ought to take into account all of the circumstances and where you have already taken benefits from the lands the Court may offset those benefits against what you expected to get from the lands. Ultimately the Court will be asked to make a declaration as to who owns the lands. Should you be completely successful the Court may declare that the lands belong to you entirely and ought not to be distributed in accordance with the original land owner’s wishes.

Are there any time limits?

The appropriate time limit for bringing a proprietary estoppel claim can be complicated and is dependent on the relevant circumstances. However, you ought to act quickly and seek advice from a solicitor who specialises in this area as soon as possible. Whilst your claim may be allowed to proceed if you do nothing for many years you may find that the lands are transferred without you knowing and if a prospective purchaser of those lands isn’t aware of any claims and seeks to purchase the lands you could wind up having a case but no lands to recover. This type of claim is also based on your reliance on the promise of receiving the lands. If you do not act quickly a Court may consider that you did not have sufficient reliance on the promise to justify your claim.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”)

Bringing a claim to Court should usually be your last resort after trying to resolve a claim using a less contentious process. The Court actively encourages parties to litigation to consider mediation, arbitration or simple negotiations using legal representatives to avoid using up Court time unnecessarily. You should always seek legal advice before attempting to engage with the other parties involved. Given that these claims typically involve family members ADR can be a much better process to preserve family relationships rather than bringing a case through the Court.

Our Will, Trust & Estate Disputes Solicitors are skilled at helping you choose the right forum to deal with your case and can adapt their style as necessary to meet your needs.


Legal Aid is available for applicants who meet the relevant financial eligibility criteria and have sufficient merit to their case and at Wilson Nesbitt we are prepared to assess whether you are eligible and make the application on your behalf to get your case up and running as quickly as possible.

We also consider various funding arrangements for those who are not eligible for Legal Aid including monthly billing so you can budget accordingly and after the event insurance to protect you against the other party’s costs if you are unsuccessful.


Whether you are seeking to bring a case or are a land owner, Executor or Administrator seeking to defend one take the next step and contact our Will, Trust & Estate Disputes Solicitors using our Freephone number 0800 840 9293 or email to let us take your initial details and setup a consultation with one of our experts by phone, video conferencing, or face to face consultations in our offices in Bangor or Belfast. Both our offices are equipped with appropriate social distancing measures including protective screens in all our conference rooms.

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