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21 December 2020

Widow establishes proprietary estoppel right to live in late husband’s London house

Case: Anaghara v Anaghara & Ors [2020] EWHC 3091

In this unusual case, a widow relied on the doctrine of proprietary estoppel to secure occupation of the matrimonial home owned by her spouse on his death. In usual circumstances, a widow would ordinarily be able to rely on the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. However in this case, the deceased was not domiciled in England and Wales and therefore, the 1975 Act did not apply.

The late Mr Anaghara (referred to as ‘the Chief’ reflecting his title in Nigeria) passed away in 2007, leaving three wives including Alice Anaghara. Grace, was referred to as his ‘statutory wife’ in Nigeria, while Alice and the other wife, Benedith, were ‘customary’ wives. The Chief owned a house in London since 1976 and Alice lived there along with their three children, until the children moved out when they all turned 18 years old. The Chief visited only intermittently, however Alice lived at the property continuously since 1984. Following the Chief’s death, Alice claimed that the property was held on constructive trust for her and in the alternative, that she had equity in the property pursuant to the doctrine of proprietary estoppel.

The court found that the Chief had made numerous representations to Alice, the gist of which was that the property was ‘her house’ and she might live there as long as she wished. Alice had reasonably relied upon those representations. However, the estate argued that Alice’s long ‘rent-free’ occupation of the property counted as a ‘countervailing benefit’ which the court was obliged to weigh in the balance against Alice’s equity in the property. The trial judge concluded that an equity arose in favour of Alice pursuant to the doctrine of proprietary estoppel.

The appeal court upheld the trial judge’s finding that Alice’s occupation of the property was not a countervailing benefit which either eliminated her equity or caused it to have expired. Alice occupied the property due to the fact that she was the deceased’s wife and a wife’s expectation to continue to occupy the property was not extravagant or out of proportion to her detriment. The trial judge’s decision to grant a life interest in the property for Alice was upheld.

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