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Surrogate Family Win 10m Widow's Inheritance
The will of a wealthy widow who left more than £10m to the owners of a
Chinese restaurant who became her surrogate family was upheld by the
high court yesterday.
The judge, Sir Donald Rattee, ruled Golda "Goldie" Bechal, despite her failing memory, appreciated the effect of her August 1994 will in which she left almost her entire fortune to her long-standing best friends, Kim Sing and Bee Lian Man.
The court rejected a challenge by her five nephews and nieces - Sandra Blackman, Barbara Green, Laurence Lebor, Louise Barnard and Mervyn Lebor - who claimed her family and some charities were entitled to inherit her estate under a 1988 will.
Bechal died in January 2004, aged 88, leaving a portfolio of commercial properties built up by her husband, Simon, who died in 1971. The Mans, of Great Leighs, Chelmsford, Essex, owners of the Lian restaurant in Witham, Essex, had been friends of Bechal and her husband for many years. One of their properties was rented as a restaurant to Mr Man's father.
The judge accepted that Bechal, sad and lonely after the death of her husband and of her son Peter, 28, three years later, became almost part of their family. They went on foreign holidays with her and there were regular get-togethers at their restaurant and her flat in Mayfair, central London. Mr Man visited her whenever he was in London to buy supplies.
Recalling his friendship with Bechal, Mr Man said she was "an upper-class posh lady" but she "always enjoyed her Chinese pickled leeks and bean sprouts, which I brought for her". He and his wife denied there were any suspicious circumstances surrounding the will. The judge accepted they played no part when Bechal filled in a will form, supplied by Barclays bank, or when the will was drawn up by the bank and executed.
The nephews and nieces argued that, even if their aunt understood the effect of making a will, there were doubts over whether she appreciated the extent of her wealth. It was strange that she had used a bank's will-writing service when she had her own lawyers.
The judge said Bechal was anxious that her family should not know of her intentions. When she made the will, she included a statement that her sister's children had been provided for on the death of her late brother Philip. She told the Mans they should expect trouble from her nephews and nieces and "must be strong".
"It was not irrational to leave the bulk of her estate to Mrs Man, the daughter she would dearly have wished to have had, and her husband," the judge said. "And I am satisfied Mrs Bechal understood that she had a substantial property portfolio." He refused permission to appeal.
Man, asked how the result would affect the couple, said: "It will make no difference. Life goes on as normal."
The nephews and nieces who challenged the will were ordered to pay costs thought to total more than £500,000.
The family said in a statement that the 1988 will, which had never been found, had apparently left seven-ninths of the estate to charities and only two-ninths to the family. "It was our awareness of this wish which motivated us."
By Guardian Unlimited © Copyright Guardian Newspapers 2006