$200m assets: Court of Appeal orders deputies for widow in family dispute case

A FIVE-YEAR spat involving three sisters from a prominent Singapore family has ended in the Court of Appeal, which found that one of the women - an 80-year- old who is mentally impaired - is unfit to make decisions about her estimated $200 million in assets.

The apex court found that she was vulnerable and that her youngest daughter and son-in-law had "exercised undue influence" over her. It also ordered deputies to be named on her behalf.

None of the parties was named in the 108-page judgment released by the court yesterday.

The landmark case - heard by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Appeal Judges Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang - is understood to be the first to be heard by the Court of Appeal involving the 2010 Mental Capacity Act. It is significant in clarifying how relevant provisions of the Act operate.

When her father died in 2004, the 80-year-old widow inherited a fortune that, by 2010, was approaching $200 million in value.

Her husband died in 2007, leaving much of his wealth to their three children.

But the court heard that the trio had a bitter relationship, which worsened after his death.

The battle lines were drawn with her elder son, a lawyer, and doctor daughter on one side, and her youngest daughter, a psychiatrist, on the other.

The feuds vexed the woman and tensions came to a head in late 2010, leading her two younger sisters to apply under the Mental Capacity Act to declare her unfit to manage her affairs.

They argued that their sister had given bankers a series of conflicting instructions about her assets and gone to live in Hong Kong with her youngest daughter and her husband, cutting off her other two children and her siblings.

In 2011, a district judge allowed the two sisters' application but two years later, it was set aside when the widow applied to the High Court.

Shook Lin & Bok lawyers, led by Senior Counsel Sarjit Singh, then successfully applied to the High Court on behalf of the two sisters for permission to appeal to the top court, pointing to the important issues of law involved.

The Court of Appeal heard the case last August. The widow was represented by Wong Partnership Senior Counsel Alvin Yeo, while her youngest daughter and husband were represented by Rajah & Tann Senior Counsel Lee Eng Beng. All three opposed the move.

However, the court found that the latter couple had used undue influence to try to keep the widow away from the rest of her family - which was against her wishes.

The court also made clear that medical evidence showed her memory had declined and her ability to understand information in relation to complex decisions about her assets had decreased. She also had paranoid beliefs.

The Court of Appeal has called for the parties to make submissions on who should be appointed deputies to help run her affairs.

"Given (her) considerable wealth, there will likely be many decisions she will have to make in relation to her property and affairs that involve substantial sums," the judgment stated.

In a new direction, Chief Justice Menon also ruled that the mental capacity of any person being scrutinised under the Act should be examined by an independent medical expert instead of being cross-examined on the witness stand.

vijayan@sph.com.sg