Equitable Claims: Remedies when you expected to inherit but you didn’t

What if you expect to inherit something from someone’s estate, and when they die you discover that you were mistaken? What if you have acted to your detriment based on this expectation?

This seems to occur frequently in the case of farm properties. Someone works on a farm for little or no compensation, with an expectation that they will inherit the farm upon the owner’s death. Then, the owner leaves the farm to someone else.

It is always risky to provide services based upon an expectation, without setting the terms of the agreement or arrangement out in writing.  However, if the parties do not have a written agreement, the party who has provided services based upon an expectation to inherit, but has not ended up receiving the farm, may have potential remedies. A person in this situation may bring certain claims, including claims in:

  1. Proprietary estoppel;
  2. Unjust enrichment; and
  3. Breach of contract.

Proprietary Estoppel:

Proprietary estoppel is an equitable doctrine which enforces a promise that would not otherwise be enforced under the law. In order for proprietary estoppel to be available, the following three conditions must be present:

  1. A representation or assurance is made to the claimant, on the basis of which the claimant expects to enjoy some right or benefit over property;
  2. The claimant relies on that expectation by doing something, and that reliance is reasonable in all the circumstances; and
  3. The claimant suffers a detriment as a result of this reasonable reliance, such that it would be unfair or unjust for the party responsible for the representation or assurance to go back on their word.

There must be a promise one might reasonably expect to be replied upon by the person to whom it was made.

If these conditions are met and there is an equity which needs to be recognized, then the court must craft a remedy to do justice between the parties.

Unjust Enrichment:

Unjust enrichment is another equitable doctrine. A claimant must establish three elements:

  1. The respondent was enriched;
  2. The claimant suffered a corresponding deprivation; and
  3. The respondent’s enrichment and the claimant’s corresponding deprivation occurred in the absence of a juristic reason.

Breach of Contract:

Parties may enter into an agreement with a term requiring one party to make a will to the other party.  As long as the other elements of a contract are present (i.e. offer, acceptance, consideration, etc…), this type of agreement is enforceable in B.C. Further, the party expecting to benefit from such an agreement does not have to wait until the other party’s death before commencing an action, if the beneficiary becomes aware that the other party no longer intends to abide by the terms of the agreement. I previously wrote about a recent B.C. case on this issue, found here.

Recent B.C. Case – Party Expecting to Inherit Farm does not Receive it:

The B.C. Supreme Court recently considered a claim to a farm on the basis of proprietary estoppel and unjust enrichment in Kennedy v Marcotte Estate 2022 BCSC 1486.

In Kennedy, the plaintiff thought he would inherit the deceased’s farm for much of his life. The plaintiff’s family had been friends with the deceased for many years (the deceased never married, and did not have any children of his own). The plaintiff was a commercial fisherman, but when he was not fishing he would assist the deceased at the farm.

The deceased made made comments which the plaintiff understood to mean that the farm would be his after the deceased’s death. However, the deceased in fact left the will to a neighbour and close friend. The plaintiff found out about this while the deceased was still alive. He tried to convince the deceased to change his will, but this did not happen.

With respect to the claim in proprietary estoppel, the plaintiff relied upon various representations which he said gave him an expectation that he would inherit the farm:

  • In the 1970s, the plaintiff’s mother told him that the deceased put the farm in the names of the plaintiff and his three siblings;
  • From 1979-2004, annually, the deceased said that anybody who works on the deceased’s farm will get a piece one day;
  • From 1980-2000 (every two years), the deceased mentioned a man who inherited a farm from a woman who willed the property to him as an expression of gratitude for the work he did on the farm;
  • In 2004, the deceased said that he was changing his will to provide that one individual will inherit the farm (the plaintiff wrongly assumed that this person was him);
  • 2004-2018 (yearly), the deceased says that he hopes that the plaintiff is ready “to fight for the farm one day”; and
  • 2015 or 2018, Mr. Marcotte made a non-verbal gesture (pointing) with a friend which suggested that the plaintiff would inherit the farm.

The court accepted that the above representations were made, and that the plaintiff interpreted them to mean that the deceased would give the farm or part of it to the plaintiff in his will. The court also found that the plaintiff took action motivated partly upon his reliance on these representations, by working on the farm, and refraining from seeking formal paid employment when he was working on the farm.

However, the fundamental question was whether the plaintiff’s reliance on the representations was reasonable. The court held that his reliance was not reasonable. None of the representations were unambiguous or “clear enough” to communicate an assurance that if the plaintiff worked for the deceased while he was not fishing, he would inherit all or part of the farm. The court referred to several other cases of proprietary estoppel and inheriting farms, where the representations were much more unambiguous.

The claim in unjust enrichment also failed. The plaintiff established that his unpaid labor was a benefit to the deceased, and that the plaintiff suffered a corresponding deprivation. However, the claim failed on third element, in that the plaintiff failed to show a lack of juristic reason for the enrichment. The juristic reason was “[the plaintiff’s] donative intention to gift his labour to Mr. Marcotte as a long-time friend, just as his father and others had done over the years.” He did not expect to be paid, although he appreciated the payments and other benefits that were provided by the deceased to express his gratitude for the assistance.

This case is an important reminder of why you should always reduce agreements of this nature to writing. If you have expectations based on representations, the representations must be clear and unambiguous, and you must be reasonable in your reliance on them. The court in Kennedy accepted that from 1979 until 2018, during the months that the plaintiff was not away fishing, he was working on the farm approximately four to six as a week, for several hours each day. However, he was not entitled to anything for this.