Husband and wife win neighbor’s $9 million estate

31 January 2021
Contesting Wills

The recent decision of Moore v Aubusson [2020] NSWSC 1466 demonstrates the importance of updating your Will to reflect your true wishes and intentions, especially in the event where your personal circumstances have changed.  

In this case, the Supreme Court of NSW ruled in favour of a husband and wife (Mr Moore and Ms Andreasen) and awarded them their neighbour’s $9 million estate on the basis that a verbal promise made between them superseded the contents of her Will. 

Background

Since the early 2000s, Mr Moore and Ms Andreasen (the plaintiffs) were neighbours of Mrs Murphy (the deceased).

In 2002, Mrs Murphy’s husband died. She had no children and her remaining family members were unable to look after her as she aged. During this period, her neighbours, Mr Moore and Ms Andreasen assisted her with some tasks around the house.

In 2004, as her need for assistance and support increased, Mrs Murphy made arrangements with her neighbours so that they could provide her with continuous care/support. In return for looking after her for the remainder of her life, Mrs Murphy promised her neighbours the entirety of her estate.

The agreement also included a condition that Mr Moore and Ms Andreasen would not undertake their proposed building work on their property as the works would impact Mrs Murphy’s view.  

In 2015, Mrs Murphy sadly passed away and the plaintiffs were only awarded $25,000 from her estate. The remainder of the estate was to be divided equally between her siblings, as set out in her last testamentary Will.

Court proceedings were subsequently commenced by Mr Moore and Ms Andreasen on the basis that there was a verbal contract between them and Mrs Murphy, and that promise would override Mrs Murphy’s Will.

The question before the Court was whether that agreement was enough to constitute a “binding and enforceable contract” that would revoke the Will.

The basis of the claim

Mr Moore and Ms Andreasen’s case was argued on two grounds: (1) in Contract and, (2) Estoppel.

The Court was not persuaded that the terms of the “purported contractual arrangement” were disclosed with the sufficient degree of certain necessary. Thus, the Court found that the plaintiffs had failed to establish a claim in contract.

However, the Court was satisfied that the elements of proprietary estoppel were satisfied.

When assessing whether the plaintiffs had established a claim under estoppel, the Court assessed whether the care and support that Mr Moore and Ms Andreasen provided to the deceased over the years, at the expense of their own commitments, was sufficient to constitute detrimental reliance on the deceased’s promise. 

While there was conflicting evidence on the key points, the Court ultimately found that:

  • The promise between the neighbours was sufficiently clear that a reasonable expectation was created.
  • Mr Moore and Ms Andreasen acted in reliance on that representation.
  • The detriment of increasingly taking on the burden of care for Ms Murphy in reliance on her promise made it unconscionable to permit the agreement to be revoked.

Her Honour was satisfied that there was a sufficiently clear representation made by the deceased to the effect that, if the plaintiffs looked after her, in order for her to stay in her own home for as long as possible, then the deceased would leave both properties to the plaintiffs in return.

Decision

Conclusively, her Honour ruled in favour of Mr Moore and Ms Andreasens, and found that a verbal promise made between the neighbours superseded the contents of the deceased’s Will.

Her Honour found that it was unconscionable in the circumstances for the deceased to resile from the testamentary promises and ordered that the entirety of the estate (valued at $9 million dollars) be transferred to Mr Moore and Ms Andreasen.

This recent decision illustrates why an individual should update their Will, especially in circumstances where one’s intentions and personal circumstances change.

At Lionheart Lawyers, our team of Wills and Estate Lawyers will be able to guide you throughout the process to ensure that your intentions are reflected under your Will.

Important Disclaimer: The material contained in this publication is of general nature only and is based on the law as of the date of publication. It is not, nor is intended to be legal advice. If you require further information on the content of this publication, please contact our office on 9299 0112.

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