Stepmother wins High Court ruling over £1.8m feud

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The Independent Online

The three children of a wealthy electronics engineer lost a High Court feud with their stepmother today over a £1.8 million cash transfer a few months before his death.

Elisabeth, 55, and Philippe Gorjat, 54, and Sophie Charriere, 50, claimed that their stepmother, Lucrecia, took advantage of their father Jean's declining powers.

Funds totalling £1,823,160, originally in Jean's name only, were transferred into joint names with his wife in early 2007 and into his wife's sole name after his death later that year when he was 77.

The three children by Jean's first wife, Cecile, launched criminal proceedings against Lucrecia, 79, in Switzerland, where the accounts were held, in 2008. The charges were dismissed on appeal.

They also began civil actions against their stepmother in Lausanne but these were stayed to await the outcome of the High Court proceedings.

Sarah Asplin QC, a deputy High Court judge, today ruled that Jean knew and understood what he was doing when he set up the new joint accounts.

She rejected accusations that Lucrecia, who lives in Middlesex, used undue influence on her husband.

The judge said Jean was born in Paris and began living with Lucrecia, who is Argentinian, in England in 1979 and married her after his divorce in 1983.

He had a "very successful career" in electronics working as a senior manager in Latin America, Japan and France but with a matrimonial home in Harrow on the Hill called Kelburn House.

"It was common ground that in his prime Jean was a man of exceptional intellectual ability with wide interests and general knowledge and an eye for detail," the judge said.

"There was also no dispute about the fact that he had a very strong character and was extremely opinionated to the extent that he always made his own decisions and rarely, if ever, considered it necessary to take advice."

He also had a collection of vintage cars and motorcycles, other properties around the world and life insurance totalling 600,000 US dollars (£398,000).

The judge said she found the children's evidence "evasive" and at times unreliable.

She said she found Lucrecia a credible witness save over the declining health of her husband who she said did not suffer any decline in his mental facilities towards the end of his life.

But the judge said although Jean's mental and physical health did suffer, she did not accept that he was unable to write or a "vegetable" and health experts had given evidence that he did not lack capacity to manage his affairs or was susceptible to undue influence.

Jean was still making the decisions and having the final word and his wife was deferential to him even in the final years of his life, said the judge.