If a person makes a promise (“the promisor”) to another that s/he will obtain an interest in the promisor’s land and in reliance upon that promise, the other person then acts to his/her detriment, the law will intervene to prevent the promisor from going back on his/her word when it would be unconscionable for the promisor to do so. A recent NSW Supreme Court case has considered this legal principle known as proprietary estoppel where disgruntled neighbours sued the estate of his deceased neighbour after it was discovered that she reneged on her promise to leave them certain land by her Will.

David and his partner were neighbours of the deceased describing their property, No 70, at the time they purchased it as “the worst house in the best street”. The deceased was the owner of two adjoining properties (No 66 and No 68). The deceased resided in an upstairs unit at No 68 which had views of Sydney Harbour.

After David and his partner moved into No 70 in 2001, the deceased voiced her concerns about their plans to develop their property. It was contended that the deceased promised to leave them her houses (No 66 and No 68) in return for them looking after her for the rest of her life and agreeing not to undertake their desired building works to the extent that such works would impede her Harbour views.

David and his partner performed their side of the agreement but when the deceased died in 2015, she did not leave her properties to them in her Will as she had promised. David and his partner sued the executor of the deceased’s estate seeking to enforce their rights by estoppel against her estate.

The court found David and his partner did provide services to the deceased and altered their lifestyle to accommodate the deceased’s needs, and provided companionship and support as the deceased aged over a number of years in reliance upon her promise to them. “Estoppel by encouragement vindicates a plaintiff’s expectations when a defendant seeks unconscionably to resile from an expectation that he or she has created”. The court determined that detrimental reliance “sufficient to render it unconscionable for the deceased to resile from the testamentary promises has been established” and the elements of proprietary estoppel were made out. The court ordered the executor of the deceased’s estate to transfer the 2 properties to David and his partner.

A promise made by one person to another may be enforceable against the promisor particularly where significant steps have been undertaken in reliance upon the promise and you should seek professional legal advice. At Everingham Solomons we have the expertise and experience to advise you on your legal rights because Helping You is Our Business.

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