The real life Bleak House: Family at war over 200,000 inheritance loses every penny in four-year legal dispute


The real life Bleak House: Family at war over 200,000 inheritance loses every penny in four-year legal disputeDaphne Burgess left sum to daughters Julia Hawes and Libby BurgessHer son Peter was left out of the will but he managed to overturn decisionPeter and Libby pitched against Julia at six-day Court of Appeal hearingLord Justice Mummery described the case as a 'calamity for the family'

By
Daily Mail Reporter

PUBLISHED:

02:39 GMT, 20 February 2013

|

UPDATED:

02:40 GMT, 20 February 2013


Challenge: Daphne Burgess left 200,000 to her daughters Julia Hawes (pictured) and Libby Burgess when she died aged 80. Her son Peter, who was left out of the will, managed to overturn the decision at the Court of Appeal

Challenge: Daphne Burgess left 200,000 to her daughters Julia Hawes (pictured) and Libby Burgess when she died aged 80. Her son Peter, who was left out of the will, managed to overturn the decision at the Court of Appeal

A bitter battle over a family will ended yesterday with the two sides spending more on lawyers than the 200,000 at stake.

Daphne Burgess left that sum when she died four years ago at the age of 80. But she had cut her son Peter out the will, leaving her estate to her daughters Julia Hawes and Libby Burgess.

Peter managed to overturn that decision yesterday – but only at what a leading judge described as a calamitous expense.

The hearing, which pitched Peter and Libby against Julia, lasted six days and called on 26 witnesses.

Lord Justice Mummery compared the case with the infamous lawsuit in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House: ‘It may be recalled that the foggy family law suit in Jarndyce v Jarndyce dragged on before the Lord Chancellor for generations until nothing was left for the parties to take.’

He said the only real difference was that the disappearance of Mrs Burgess’s estate had ‘happened faster than under the dilatory procedures of the unreformed Court of Chancery in the Jarndyce case’.

He added: ‘The cost of contesting Mrs Burgess’s will is a calamity for this family in every way. Even worse are the human consequences for a once close-knit and loving family.’

He said the rift between the three siblings was ‘likely to be beyond repair’.

Julia, a former Milton Keynes magistrate, insisted her mother was of sound mind when she decided to write her son out of the will she wrote two years before her death in 2009.

Libby and Peter, who runs a recruitment company, argued in return that their mother was in the grip of dementia and lacked the legal capacity to make a valid will.

Ruling: The Court of Appeal came down in the favour of Peter and Libby, who challenged the will, ruling that their mother had lacked knowledge and approval of the wills contents

Ruling: The Court of Appeal came down in the favour of Peter and Libby, who challenged the will, ruling that their mother had lacked 'knowledge and approval' of the will's contents

Yesterday, the Court of Appeal came down in their favour, ruling that their mother had lacked ‘knowledge and approval’ of the will’s contents and that – if her estate was not exhausted by the legal action – it should be split three ways.

Mrs Burgess changed her will shortly after moving from her home in Milton Keynes to a nearby bungalow bought for her by her son.

Comparison: Lord Justice Mummery compared the case with an infamous lawsuit in Charles Dickenss Bleak House

Comparison: Lord Justice Mummery compared the case with an infamous lawsuit in Charles Dickens's Bleak House

She had decided to leave some of her personal effects to each of her children and also wanted to specify who should give the eulogy at her funeral and where her ashes should be scattered.

Julia was with her mother when solicitors drew up the will, which included a clause that Mr Burgess would not receive anything from her estate, because of ‘lifetime provision’ she intended to make for him in the form of improvements to the bungalow.

Peter and Libby instructed city solicitors and a top QC to challenge the will, pointing to an Oxford professor’s evidence that their mother may have been confused and suffering from a ‘moderate’ disorder of the mind at the time.

Lord Justice Mummery said he ‘entertained doubts’ as to whether Mrs Burgess in fact lacked the mental capacity to make the will – but nevertheless ruled it invalid on the grounds that she had not fully appreciated the document’s impact.

The judge, sitting with Lord Justice Patten and Sir Scott Baker, said Julia and Peter had fallen out before the document was signed.

However he remained close to his mother until her death, without her telling him about the new will.

Under Mrs Burgess’s previous will, signed in 1996, her estate was split three ways and that will now take precedence. Julia was ordered to pay her siblings’ legal costs.