I wish horses could talk: a case of proprietary estoppel
What is always important to understand, in any property ownership situation (including a dispute of most any kind), is that the existence of a registered owner, on title, is not absolutely conclusive evidence of full legal (and beneficial) ownership of the property.
This issue arises fairly often in Estate situations, where the mix of documents that exist, and evidence of discussions among individuals, can lead to confusion and ultimately a judicial consideration of the issues. Put another way, many people are “promised” assets by others while the “other” is alive.
Documents made may or may not support the promise (and may or may not be brought to the person’s attention). After the “other” passes away, the surviving person is left to contemplate whether to try and enforce the promise.
Earlier this month, reasons for judgement were released in the case called Sabey v. Beardsley and Estate of Hopffgarten and others. This dispute was over ownership of a horse farm.
The Plaintiff first met the deceased and her husband, in Washington State, when he was a teenager. He saw them riding “dressage” and immediately became interested. He called them to ask for lessons and they agreed. From that point, a very close, long-term relationship evolved. The Plaintiff did a tremendous amount of work on the farm in Washington, and received lessons in return. This went on for years.
As the Plaintiff grew older, he chose to do missionary work in Asia, and left for two years. When he returned, he was permitted back onto the farm and continued his lessons and the farm work. He was not well compensated but was on occasion told of the couples’ long-term plans, which appeared to be, in part, that the farm would “one day be yours.” The couple also encouraged the Plaintiff to pursue post-secondary studies.
The Plaintiff pursued Accounting at a Washington State college, and was able to arrange his classes so as to maximize his time at the farm, and continue his work and his riding (though it seemed to be a lot more work than riding). At a certain point, the couple made Codicils to their Wills, where they bequeathed their farm to the Plaintiff. However, the Codicils were not witnessed by two persons, and so were invalid.
The Plaintiff over time believed that the farm would be left to him, and when the husband died, in 2006, the Plaintiff had a few discussions with the surviving wife, which reinforced that belief. When the wife passed, in 2011, her Will said in part that the farm was bequeathed to another person. I am sure that the Plaintiff was quite shocked when he discovered this.
The case, legally speaking, was about something called proprietary estoppel. That means that if a promise is made to someone, and they rely on it, documents made at a certain point will not override the promise.
What was most interesting was that the Plaintiff was a model witness. His credibility was not in doubt, and his evidence was thorough. Indeed, the Plaintiff is now well into his adult life (he is in his mid-thirties) and so had a twenty-plus year history with the (now deceased) couple. He clearly organized his life over many years to permit him to work, largely unpaid, at the farm. Other people who worked on the farm provided the Court with good, corroborative evidence about the Plaintiff as well (I’m sure that if the dressage horses the Plaintiff rode could have spoken, they would have given good evidence too!).
The Court seemed to have a relatively easy task of concluding that the promise was made to the Plaintiff (more than once), and that the Plaintiff acted on it (over years) and did suffer detriment (a significant amount of work, though not from a negative perspective, because he had a very strong relationship with the couple). Thus the case for the estoppel was made, and the Plaintiff was awarded ownership of the farm. I think it was the proper result.
This case is important, because this sort of thing happens often in society, and I question how many people are aware of the remedy that exists. Not that it is always a simple remedy to pursue, but it is worth considering, especially where a person’s life is so affected over so many years, as was the case with this Plaintiff. Understand that, whatever a title might show as the name of the registered property owner(s), the true owner or person entitled may be different. There’s always a story.
This column appeared in the Richmond News on April 26, 2013.