Return to view all news articles.

Proprietary Estoppel in Inheritance Disputes

A photo of Noel McNicholas
20th October 2023

Inheritance disputes often create complex legal situations, with emotions running high. Proprietary estoppel, a doctrine grounded in the principles of fairness and equity, plays a significant role in such cases. In this article, we will examine proprietary estoppel in the context of inheritance disputes, applying our expertise to shed light on its applications and implications.

The Foundation of Proprietary Estoppel in Inheritance Disputes

Proprietary estoppel serves as a legal doctrine that seeks to prevent the unconscionable denial of property rights in the context of inheritance.

It often arises when a person makes a promise or representation related to inheritance, leading another party to rely on it to their detriment. “One day all this will be yours” is a common phrase and this doctrine recognises that beneficiaries should not be unjustly deprived of their rightful inheritance, and fairness and equity should prevail if they have acted to their detriment in relying upon that promise.

The Three Essential Elements

For proprietary estoppel to be established in inheritance disputes, three key elements must be satisfied:

  • Assurance: There must be a clear and unequivocal promise or representation related to inheritance made by one party to another. This promise can be explicit or implied, but it must be unambiguous.

  • Detrimental Reliance: The promise must have reasonably relied on the assurance to their detriment. Detriment can manifest as hard work, financial loss, changes in lifestyle, missed opportunities or a combination of these matters.

  • Unconscionability: It must be unconscionable or morally unacceptable for the promisor to go back on their assurance. Courts weigh the equities of the situation, considering the interests of both parties.

Inheritance Disputes and Proprietary Estoppel

In the context of inheritance disputes, proprietary estoppel can come into play in various scenarios, including:

  • Promised Inheritance: When a testator verbally promises a beneficiary a share of their estate, and the beneficiary relies on this promise, proprietary estoppel may be invoked if the promise is not fulfilled.

  • Working for an Inheritance: If a family member works for a deceased person on the understanding that they will inherit a portion of the estate, and they suffer financial detriment in doing so, proprietary estoppel may be claimed.

  • Unfulfilled Gifts: When a deceased person makes a clear promise to gift a property or other assets to someone, and the promise is not kept, proprietary estoppel may apply if the beneficiary relied on the promise to their detriment.

  • Sacrifices for Inheritance: Beneficiaries who have made significant sacrifices, such as caring for the testator or giving up their own opportunities, in reliance on the promise of inheritance may have a proprietary estoppel claim if that promise is denied.

Our Perspective on Inheritance Disputes

We recognise inheritance disputes are often emotionally charged and legally intricate. Parties involved in these disputes must consider the following:

  • Seek professional legal advice to assess the validity of proprietary estoppel claims and formulate effective legal strategies.

  • Documentation: Keep meticulous records of all discussions, promises, and actions related to inheritance. This can be easier said than done, especially given the informal nature of inter-family discussions, often over long periods of time and sometimes spanning decades. However any contemporary documentation the parties can produce may play a crucial role in establishing the validity of proprietary estoppel claims.

  • Dispute Resolution: Consider alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, such as mediation, to achieve amicable settlements and preserve family relationships, whenever possible.


Proprietary estoppel, deeply rooted in principles of fairness and equity, holds substantial significance in inheritance disputes. We recognise the importance of this doctrine in safeguarding the rights of beneficiaries and ensuring the fulfilment of promises related to inheritance. By understanding the essential elements of proprietary estoppel and its relevance in inheritance disputes, individuals can navigate these emotional and legally intricate situations more effectively, ensuring that promises are kept, and the principles of fairness and equity prevail in the realm of Estate planning and distribution.

If you have any questions concerning a proprietary estoppel claim, please contact Noel McNicholas on 01926 887700 or This blog was written by Noel, an Associate Solicitor based in our Leamington Spa office. Click here to see his ReviewSolicitors profile where he is rated 4.9/5 stars out of 22 reviews.