In a recent case decided by our Supreme Court, Sabey v. Beardsley, 2013 BCSC 642, the court had to decide who inherited a horse farm and dressage training facility in Langley, BC, known as Sansoucci. The farm was owned by Kim von Hopffgarten, who died in May 2011. In her will, Ms. von Hopffgarten left the farm to the defendant Burgi Rommel. The farm had previously been owned jointly by Ms. von Hopffgarten and her husband Dietrich von Hopffgarten, who died in February, 2006.
The plaintiff, Jesse Sabey, spent a good deal of time working and living on Sansoucci, apparently under the expectation that one day he would inherit the farm. The defendant, Ms. Rommel, was a good friend of the von Hopffgartens and also a dressage trainer and coach. The will specified the farm was to go to Ms. Rommel. However, both of the von Hopffgartens executed codicils to their wills changing the gift of the farm from Ms. Rommel to the plaintiff. Unfortunately, the codicils were only witnessed by one person and were therefore invalid as the Wills Act, R.S.B.C. 1996, c. 489, requires two witnesses to a testator’s signature. This litigation was the result of that failure to comply with the Wills Act.
Mr. Sabey’s claim was based on what is referred to as “proprietary estoppel”, a claim based on the following three elements:
- Was a representation made to the claimant (Mr. Sabey) that he would inherit the farm for the work he was doing;
- Did Mr. Sabey reasonably rely on the representation; and
- Did Mr. Sabey suffer a detriment arising from his reliance on the representation?
At the trial, Mr. Sabey gave evidence that both the von Hopffgartens, particularly Dietrich, told him that one day Sansoucci would be his, in words such as, “Jesse, some day when you have this farm you’ll appreciate this” and “Good job mowing the lawn, everything looks good, I’m glad you’re learning this, and you’ll appreciate this when this is yours someday”. Mr. Sabey relied on these statements and arranged his life accordingly to spend as much time on the farm as possible.
The court considered whether these statements, and others like them, were enough to award the farm to the plaintiff. After reviewing the evidence, the court found that Mr. Sabey had reasonably relied on these statements to his detriment and awarded him title to Sansoucci.
This case highlights the issues that can arise when promises are made and not supported by correct estate documents. This litigation could have been avoided if the codicils changing the von Hopffgartens’ wills had been done correctly. Fortunately, the doctrine of promissory estoppel was there to ensure that Mr. Sabey received what had been promised to him in exchange for his years of work.
By Karen P. Maki
Karen Maki is a lawyer with Shergill & Company. She practices in the areas of civil and commercial litigation. She can be reached at 604-597-8111 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, for a free consultation.
© 2013 Shergill & Company, Trial Lawyers