Living with the relatives

How to get the house uncle said he would leave you – Guidance on the law of proprietary estoppel

Imagine the scene:

You get on well with your elderly uncle who lives in a large house in Cornwall. You visit him from time-to-time but it’s becoming clear that, as he grows older, he is finding it increasingly difficult to live in the house on his own. He suggests you leave your house in Sheffield and move to share the property with him. He says if you are willing to do so then he will leave the property to you in his will. To uproot your family from Sheffield and move to Cornwall is no easy task. However, you are fond of your uncle and would like to look after him. He has a very nice house and if it one day became yours then the situation could work well for all concerned.

This was the case in Bradbury v Taylor and Burkinshaw 2012 which came before the Court of Appeal late last year.

Bill, a widower, lived alone in a large house in Cornwall called Lower Manaton. His nephew, Roger Taylor and partner, Denise Burkinishaw, moved in to live with Bill to provide him with help and support. A draft letter was prepared at the time in which Bill stated that he would leave them the house, subject to certain conditions.

Unfortunately, relations between the parties soured. Bill made a series of wills in which he, bit by bit, reduced Roger and Denise’s rights to continue living in the property after his death.
In 2009 matters came to a head when Bill wrote to Denise and Roger telling them that although they could continue to live in Lower Manaton during his life, they would have no right to stay there after his death.

The letter contained the following lines:

    “Initially, I invited you to live here rent-free in a different environment, in a not unpleasant house and garden and, should you accept, it would be occasional company for me and the occupation of an unused part of the house. That is all it was, no undercurrents or hidden messages. That it has turned sour has caused me some distress and uncertainty for you”.

In evidence, Bill went on to say that Roger would have been the last person he would ever have left his house to. Bill Bradbury died the day before the court hearing.

Roger and Denise claimed that they had a right, by way of proprietary estoppel, to live in the property. In order to bring the claim, Roger and Denise had to be able to show that Bill had promised them the property when he died, that they had relied on this promise and in so doing they had acted to their detriment. Where these elements can all be established, then the courts will not allow the individual who made the promise to go back on it.

Sometimes, there may be some doubt as to exactly what was promised and, therefore, the remedy that the court will provide will not always be what a person feels was promised to them. The court will look at the evidence and decide on the merits of each individual case.

Roger and Denise had wanted written confirmation from Bill that he was leaving the property to them by will and that he would not change his mind. Bill never provided such confirmation.

The court found, however, that there had been a clear promise by Bill that he would leave the property to them. They had acted substantially to their detriment in moving from Sheffield and had provided care for Bill. They had also carried out work and expenditure on the property. All of this amounted to a detriment.

The court then had to consider whether or not the detriment was such that it would be reasonable to transfer the house to them outright. The court could have considered that the house should be sold and Roger and Denise given part of the proceeds. The court concluded, however, that the expected benefit and detriment were proportionate, or at least not wholly disproportionate, and held that it was reasonable for them to receive the property.

With our ageing population, rising house prices and the problems experienced in obtaining a mortgage, these sorts of arrangements are likely to grow. It is obviously better for all concerned that they are properly documented at the outset. Where they are not documented, the parties at the very least need to set out some clear principles in writing so that each is fully aware as to what they are committing themselves to.

When dealing with an elderly relative it is sensible to have them separately advised by a solicitor to avoid later accusations of undue influence.