Husband wins claim over $20m Chancery Lane bungalow

Millionaire who paid for it is real owner, though it was in wife's name: Judge

A TUSSLE by a couple in their 80s over who owned a $20 million bungalow in Chancery Lane has been settled in favour of the husband by the High Court.

Justice Choo Han Teck found retired businessman See Fong Mun, 86, had paid for the house that was bought in 1983 but registered in the name of his wife Chan Yuen Lan, 88.

At the heart of the issue was whether the property belonged to the person who paid for it or the person in whose name it was registered.

The case helps make clear that a registered legal owner of a property paid for by another can be treated as a trustee of the property for the payer, who is the real owner of the benefit from the property. To arrive at the decision, the court will look at all the circumstances, including the intention of the parties at the time of purchase and from whom the monies came, and decide if it was being held either in a resulting or constructive trust.

In the case of the Chancery Lane bungalow, Justice Choo found that it was held in a resulting trust because from the start, the couple had both intended for the property to belong to Mr See.

Three days before the purchase was made in 1983, Madam Chan signed a power of attorney authorising her husband and their eldest child Cliff to take charge and manage the house.

But in April 2011, she revoked the 1983 power of attorney, a move that prompted her husband to seek a High Court order to nullify her action.

In his written judgment released yesterday, Justice Choo noted wryly in the opening sentence: "This is a case about an old folks' home - a very large and expensive house."

The double-storey house sits on a plot of land just over 20,000 sq ft, and is a good class bungalow in an upscale neighbourhood.

The couple married in 1957 and Madam Chan stopped working as a hairdresser after marriage. They have three children, aged 55, 53 and 51. The now-retired Mr See was the sole breadwinner except for one year, and Madam Chan depended on the household income he gave her, the judge noted.

Mr See was a self-made millionaire who started two companies. In 1983, when he turned 55, he bought the bungalow with money put together from various sources, such as his Central Provident Fund savings and a $290,000 loan from Madam Chan. Justice Choo found the loan was repaid and could not be considered as her share of the purchase of the house.

Madam Chan, defended by lawyer Simon Jones, had also argued, among other things, that Mr See had bought the house as a gift as he felt "guilt-ridden" by an extramarital affair with his secretary.

But the judge found the overall evidence to be very weak and was not convinced that Mr See bought the bungalow "out of sheer conscience or moral responsibility".

"A man nearing retirement age who had just fallen in love with another woman was unlikely in the circumstances to scrape together a $1.8 million fund from multiple sources to buy a house... as a gift to his wife," he noted.

Mr See, represented by lawyers Lim Seng Siew and Lai Swee Fung, claimed his wife had asked for the property to be put in her name "as the husbands of all her friends had done so and she wished to flaunt it to her friends". Mr See agreed in exchange for her written agreement confirming that he was the sole and ultimate owner.

The veracity of his claim was disputed by two sons, who were on opposing sides.

"As neither account was inherently unbelievable, my finding could only be based largely on credibility," said Justice Choo, who found the older son Cliff to be a "more measured and candid witness".

He also noted that Mr See's affair did not lead him to divorce his wife, and the house has remained their matrimonial home. Madam Chan had lived in it since 1983 until the lawsuit started last year, when she moved out, but not at his behest.