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Ustinov vs Ustinov: The ruinous legal battle tearing a family apart

A will written in pencil in the 1960s has come back to haunt the family of the late actor – and left a trail of bitterness, legal warfare and penury

When asked about his son Igor's artistic achievements, Peter Ustinov once affectionately attributed his offspring's success as a sculptor to his family's creative genes, adding: "If he had decided to become a financial wizard, I would have wondered where he got it from."

They were prophetic words. Thirty years later, sculptor Igor Cloutier von Ustinov has declared himself "close to bankruptcy" after a ruinous legal battle lasting close to a decade with his late father's third wife and widow, Helene, over the estate of the revered actor, writer and raconteur.

Now aged 56, Igor has been pursuing a claim that Sir Peter, who was worth several million pounds at the time of his death in 2004, placed much of his wealth – including the intellectual property rights to his work – in trusts designed to benefit his four children from three marriages.

The family drama, which were it a work of fiction could have justified the Oscar-winning actor reprising his role as Hercule Poirot to resolve such riddles as a will written in pencil, reached its latest denouement in London's High Court last week.

A judge threw out Igor's attempt to bring the dispute – hitherto fought out in the Swiss courts – to these shores by claiming the trusts were governed by English law. Sir Peter's son-in-law admitted after the ruling it is likely there is now little left of his sizable legacy.

In a bitter defeat for Igor, a renowned Paris-based sculptor, Mrs Justice Proudman ruled that he had failed to produce evidence that the trusts existed and had produced "the most fragile claim imaginable" in the latest chapter of a so-far fruitless pursuit of his father's estate, which included a Renoir painting and country estate, complete with vineyard, on the banks of Lake Geneva.

The judge, who said she was "appalled" at the cost of the dispute, said: "Mr Von Ustinov can't say who are [the trusts'] beneficiaries and what are its terms. His claim is the most fragile claim imaginable. Nor is there any evidence of any trust governed by English law."

Lawyers for Mr Ustinov told The Independent that he does not intend to appeal the judgment in London. It is possible that his precarious financial situation after the ruling, which left him facing a £114,000 bill for legal costs, is connected to that decision.

Speaking after the ruling on Friday, Igor said: "I was very close to my father – when I died I was holding his hand and I felt like he had asked me to put some order into his affairs, but it has been very hard. Now, I'm close to bankruptcy and I don't know what to do."

Malcolm Rennie, the actor and husband of Igor's half-sister Tamara Ustinov, who is Sir Peter's daughter from his first marriage to Isolde Denham, said: "Peter was a wonderful man, but being successful at such a high level as he was, everybody wanted a piece of him. I would be surprised if there is anything left in the estate – it has probably all gone to the lawyers."

The internecine strife, which has also seen Igor's sisters Andrea and Pavla joining the proceedings, has its roots in a will written in pencil in the late 1960s around the time when Sir Peter was going through a divorce from his second wife, Suzanne Cloutier – the mother of Igor and his two sisters.

Judges in Switzerland, where Sir Peter moved in the 1960s and died in 2004 aged 82, declared that will invalid and ruled that he had died intestate. Under Swiss law, his estate then passed to the actor's third wife, Lady Helene, who had nursed him through his final years beset by the effects of diabetes.

Despite encapsulating on screen and in real life the quintessential Englishman, Sir Peter was fond of pointing out that, being the son of a German-born MI5 agent and a Russian painter, not a single drop of English blood coursed through his veins.

His children have spoken warmly of a man who would take them on sailing trips around the Mediterranean. But there seems to have been a chaotic streak to the organisation of his financial affairs, which Igor has said he feels obliged to resolve – at increasingly ruinous expense.

The sculptor, who once sung an opera duet with his father and trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, had alleged that the details of the trusts, allegedly established in Lichtenstein and Switzerland, are known only by two retired Swiss lawyers, who strongly denied the claim.

Igor, who argues that the trusts supercede any will and should ensure that his father's estate passes to him and his sisters, has further claimed that the intricacies of the financial system in the two countries act against families trying to access the assets of deceased loved ones.

He said: "This action was not against my stepmother or my sisters, it was about the fact that my father saved up money and rights for years and now they are not available to the family. These trusts contained the rights and royalties to everything he wrote, his film rights. It's a very sad story."

It is also a story that as yet has no end. Ian Meakin, the barrister who represented Igor in the High Court, confirmed last night that proceedings in the Swiss courts over the actor's legacy are ongoing.

In a statement, he said: "Igor, like his sisters, must continue in Switzerland as they are heirs to the estate."

Where there's a will... there's a war

Pablo Picasso

The Spanish artist died intestate at the age of 91 in 1973, leaving a vast fortune of art, houses and gold. It took six years of cases before the French courts, at a reported cost of £20m, decided that the assets should be divided between six heirs.

Jimi Hendrix

The guitarist died without a will in 1970, sparking a battle between his father, Al, and his brother, Leon, over his estate and the rights to his recordings. It was still raging more than 30 years later.

Stieg Larsson

The Swedish author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo died without a will in 2004. Under Swedish law, his fortune was divided between his father and brother, leaving Eva Gabrielsson, his partner of 32 years, with nothing. She was eventually granted ownership of their flat.