The long-lost nephew of an eccentric millionairess has won a £1.24m inheritance fight with her stepdaughter after a judge rejected claims he was an imposter as ‘pure fantasy’.
Wealthy widow Jean Lech cut out her stepdaughter Anna St Clair from her will completely when she died in 2012, instead splitting her money between her nephew Nick King and her cleaning lady June Farrell.
She had only recently established contact with her 63-year-old nephew Mr King when she made the will in May 2009, leaving him almost all of her fortune, which was mostly tied up in her share of her £2m home in south London.
But Ms St Clair, 72, took the pair to court in a bid to get the will declared invalid, claiming that Mr King was not a blood relative of her stepmum, but an ‘imposter’ who had planned with Mrs Farrell, 61, to pocket Jean’s fortune.
Mrs Farrell had found Mr King by going through a phone book looking for someone with the same surname as Jean’s brother who could play the role of the long-lost nephew, she claimed.
But following a trial at the High Court in London, Judge Mark Cawson QC threw out her case and handed victory in the inheritance fight to Mr King and Mrs Farrell.
‘Ms St Clair has continued to refuse to accept that Mr King is anything other than an impostor, unrelated to Mrs Lech,’ he said.
‘This is despite DNA tests having been carried out, the existence of a birth certificate, and the evidence of his mother, in addition to that of Mr King himself.’
Jean Lech had only recently established contact with her 63-year-old nephew Nick King when she made the will in May 2009, leaving him almost all of her fortune
The rest of Ms Lech’s money went to her cleaning lady June Farrell, the High Court was told
Her telephone book ‘theory’ was ‘pure fantasy’, he said, and he had no doubt but that Mr King is the son of Jean’s brother, Peter.
The court heard Jean left behind a £1.24m legacy when she died aged 79, mostly tied up in her half share of her £2m home in Telford Avenue, Streatham.
She had co-owned the house with her husband Zbigniew Lech, Ms St Clair’s natural father, who died aged 101 in 2008. He had left his half of the house ultimately to Ms St Clair and her daughter Carmen, with the stipulation that his widow could continue to live there until she herself died.
Ms St Clair, who now lives in Melbourne, Australia, was the main beneficiary of a will made by her stepmum in 2007, but was left nothing at all in the revised document made in May 2009.
Instead it left £10,000 to cleaning lady Mrs Farrell, plus similar gifts to each of Mrs Farrell’s two children, and the rest to her nephew, with whom Jean had only recently established contact before she died.
The judge said Ms St Clair refused to accept Mr King was a genuine relative, but in his evidence Mr King said he had been contacted by his ‘Aunty Jean’ and visited her several times during her final couple of years, taking her out for meals.
Contesting the 2009 will, Ms St Clair told the court that her stepmum – who was her dad’s third wife – was notoriously bad-tempered and that she believes she had an antisocial personality disorder which, combined with her being ill when she made her last will, ought to see it invalidated.
She was not displaying ‘the thinking style of a mature adult but rather that of a petulant child’ by 2009 and wouldn’t ‘pass the test for testamentary capacity,’ she claimed.
The house in Telford Avenue, Streatham, at the centre of a court fight over the will of the late Jean Lech
Giving examples of her unusual behaviour, Ms St Clair said: ‘One Christmas Day, she was, unusually, doing the washing up. My father made a comment about her wasting the hot water. She turned and threw the roast turkey through the nearest window, causing glass to splinter everywhere. There was no festive dinner that day.’
She went on: ‘Jean was in the habit of luring neighbourhood cats away from their owners by giving them fresh fish.
‘On one occasion, one neighbour came for a visit seeking his cat. In order to inject some good humour when it seemed as though the cat would not be returned, he said ‘well you better watch out because I am a big bad lawyer.’
‘Jean instantly retorted: ‘And I’m a f***ing b**ch, now get out’. The poor man never got his cat back.’
On another occasion, Ms St Clair said: ‘She screamed that I was poisoning her plants when I was in fact just watering them. She made egregious and insane allegations.
‘She was quite pleasant when she wasn’t drunk but when drunk became unbearable.’
Ms St Clair also brought a claim of ‘fraudulent calumny,’ arguing that Mrs Farrell, Jean’s cleaner, must have manipulated her stepmum into cutting her out of the will.
She claimed before the judge that Mrs Farrell had ‘poisoned her mind’ against her.
Furthermore, she claimed Mrs Farrell and Mr King were ‘in a relationship’ and had plotted together to inherit Jean’s money.
But rejecting all the allegations and Ms St Clair’s claim as a whole, the judge said: ‘Mrs Lech…was clearly a larger-than-life and strong-willed character, who was capable of being difficult if she wanted to be. The impression that I get…is that she required to be the centre of attention, and had a tendency to take it out on others if she was not.
‘I am left with the clear impression that Ms St Clair is motivated in bringing the present proceedings by a genuinely held sense of grievance that Mr King, and also Mrs Farrell, stand to inherit under the terms of the 2009 will virtually the whole of Mrs Lech’s estate, which largely comprises Mrs Lech’s 50% beneficial interest in the house and premium bonds and shares inherited from Mr Lech.
‘This sense of grievance stems from Ms St Clair’s perception that her father, Mr Lech, paid for the house, without Mrs Lech having made any contribution thereto and without having made any other significant contribution to the marriage.
‘She therefore sees it as quite wrong that assets, which she sees as derived from her father’s efforts, should end up in the hands of people she regards as strangers, rather than in the hands of herself and her daughter as Mr Lech’s closest relatives.
‘The relationship between Mrs Lech and Ms St Clair was never particularly good.
‘Mrs Lech knew her own mind, and was not somebody to be pushed around.
‘I am unable to find, on the balance of probabilities, that any agreement in relation to the making of mutual wills was concluded between Mr Lech and Mrs Lech in respect of the wills that they made in 2007.
‘Ms St Clair’s case ultimately depends upon a theory that the alleged false representations uttered by Mrs Farrell were about poisoning Mrs Lech’s mind against Ms St Clair so that Mrs Farrell could benefit, either by personally benefiting under Mrs Lech’s will, or benefiting through Mr King.
‘Whilst Mrs Farrell and her children did benefit under the 2009 will, the legacies given were comparatively modest having regard to the size of the estate and reflect the type of legacy that a testatrix such as Mrs Lech might well have left to a good friend who had helped out in the way that I have found that Mrs Farrell did. There is, I consider, nothing unusual or surprising about them.
‘So far as Mr King is concerned, as considered above, I accept his evidence as to the circumstances in which he came to meet and maintain contact with Mrs Lech. I reject any suggestion that he was introduced in some way to Mrs Lech by Mrs Farrell.
‘There is nothing to support the allegation that Mrs Farrell and Mr King were or are in any sort of personal relationship, which they both emphatically deny.
‘There is absolutely no evidence to support the suggestion that Mrs Farrell stands to benefit in any way through Mr King.
‘In the circumstances, a motive for Mrs Farrell making false representations as alleged is simply not made out.
‘The evidence of Mr King, which I accept, is that he developed, albeit in a relatively short period of time, a good relationship with Mrs Lech, having visited her on a number of occasions before she made the 2009 will, and thereafter until her death. Mr King’s evidence was that they got on well, in contrast to the relationship between Mrs Lech and Ms St Clair and Carmen.
‘Mr King was not known to Mrs Lech when she made her wills in 2006 and 2007.. By the time she came to decide that Mr King should benefit from the residue of her estate, Mr Lech was no longer around to influence her testamentary dispositions, and she had established a relationship with Mr King. In the circumstances, there was a certain rationale to not benefiting Ms St Clair and Carmen with whom she had had a fractious relationship, but benefiting Mr King instead.
‘I do not consider that the evidence establishes a case of fraudulent calumny,’ the judge said.
He also went on to reject Ms St Clair’s argument that her stepmum lacked testamentary capacity.
‘Ms St Clair has pulled together a number of facts that are said to go to Mrs Lech’s testamentary capacity. However, I consider it plain that, in reality, these facts do not do so even if true.’
Referring to the allegations of eccentric and irrational behaviour, the judge said: ‘These may demonstrate a degree of lack of judgment on Mrs Lech’s part, if true, but not that Mrs Lech lacked testamentary capacity as at the time that she made the 2009 will.
‘I do not consider that it can be assumed that Mrs Lech’s conduct was in any sense irrational in leaving her residuary estate to Mr King and making the comparatively modest provision for Mrs Farrell that she did. Indeed, as I have already held, there was a certain rationality in what she did.
‘In any event, it is entirely open to a testator to act unfairly, vindictively, perversely, or otherwise irrationally, although I recognise that, in appropriate circumstances, such conduct might point to the possibility least of a lack of testamentary capacity.
‘I am satisfied on the evidence that the 2009 will was executed with Mrs Lech’s knowledge and approval.
‘It follows from the above that each of the challenges made by Ms St Clair to the validity of the 2009 will must fail, and therefore that her claim should be dismissed.
‘In the circumstances, I have no hesitation in pronouncing in favour of the force and validity of Mrs Lech’s will dated 20 May 2009,’ the judge concluded.