In a plot reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’, a judge has warned that a costly family dispute over the will of a successful property entrepreneur could see every penny of his fortune being eaten up by legal costs.
During his working life, the businessman had built up a valuable real estate portfolio. However, his death, aged 76, in September 2007 was the curtain raiser for years of bitter legal strife between his three grown up sons and his second wife – their stepmother – over the terms of his will and the destination of various assets.
The High Court noted that ‘upwards of £200,000’ in legal costs had been racked up during the businessman’s ‘long and acrimonious’ divorce from his first wife and the mother of his sons during the 1990s. He had been described as ‘devious, wily and cynical’ by a divorce judge who had ‘urged the parties to find some form of compromise and reminded them of what happened in Bleak House’.
But those words had not discouraged a renewed outbreak of legal warfare within the family after the businessman’s death, in respect of property assets that were held in a complex corporate structure. The Court made a number of rulings relating to the interpretation of the will and other matters but acknowledged that its decision had left unresolved a number of important issues in the case.
In a stern warning to the family, the Court observed, “In 1998, when the divorce proceedings were before a district judge, he urged the parties to compromise and commented on the vast amount of costs that had been spent. The costs involved in this litigation must also be vast.
“Substantial more costs will have to be spent to determine the outstanding issues. I can only repeat the judge’s plea that the parties should now attempt to put their heads together and reach some sensible solution. Otherwise, the whole estate will vanish in costs.”