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Is a promise really a promise?

In a well-publicised decision of the Supreme Court in late 2020, a Sydney couple were successful in claiming an inheritance of a multimillion dollar harbour side estate based on a promise by their elderly neighbour (Moore v Aubusson).

The plaintiffs purchased a property in the exclusive suburb of Birchgrove in 1999. After moving in, they developed a close relationship with their neighbour who owned two adjoining properties. The neighbour’s husband had recently passed and she had no children or other close family.

The plaintiffs had intended to renovate their property however, the renovations would have impacted the neighbour’s water views. The plaintiffs claimed they reached an agreement with their neighbour that they would alter their planned renovations so as not to affect her views and would look after her until her death. In return, the neighbour would leave them her properties under her Will.

The plaintiff’s altered their renovations and looked after their neighbour until she died in 2015. The plaintiffs were therefore surprised to learn following her death that the neighbour had only left them a gift of $25,000 in her Will.

Although the Court found the ‘agreement’ was not sufficient to amount to a contract, it did find that a promise had been made, the plaintiff’s had acted in reliance on that promise at the expense of their own commitments and that they had suffered detriment as a result.

The Court therefore determined that it would be unconscionable for the promise not to be enforced and determined that pursuant to the legal doctrine of proprietary estoppel, the properties should pass to the plaintiffs.        

 Liability limited by a scheme approved under Professional Standards Legislation    

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