The recent decision of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Cowderoy v. Sorkos Estate (2012) brings to mind the expression, “a promise made is a debt unpaid.”
In Cowderoy v. Sorkos Estate, a grandfather promised to leave his cottage and farm to his two grandsons as an inheritance if they assisted him with the upkeep and maintenance of the properties. For 25 years, the grandsons upheld their end of deal, performing extensive maintenance work on the properties. When the grandfather died, the grandsons learned that contrary to the verbal agreement years earlier, they were not in fact left the properties in their grandfather’s Will.
The grandsons brought a claim against their grandfather’s estate for an interest in the properties. The claim succeeded on the basis of the doctrine of “proprietary estopple” as follows:
- The land was promised to the grandsons in exchange for their services;
- The grandsons acted on the promise to their detriment by investing their time and energy into maintaining the properties; and
- It was unconscionable for the grandfather in the circumstances to renege on the earlier promise
The court found that the grandsons would not be adequately compensated by an award of monetary damages, ordering instead that the properties be transferred to the grandsons (i.e., compelling the estate to make good on the promise). In the words of Justice Tausendfreund, the degree to which the grandsons had altered their lives for the previous 25 years in reliance on the promise was “akin to putting Humpty Dumpty back together again” when it came to calculating how much money they would be owed for their services. With the property transferred, apparently Humpty Dumpty was repaired.