Briton gets boost in bid to recover $1m from mother-in-law's estate

A High Court assistant registrar allowed an application by Mrs Jane Rebecca Ong for the estate's executor to be examined in court to determine how best to get the money.
A High Court assistant registrar allowed an application by Mrs Jane Rebecca Ong for the estate's executor to be examined in court to determine how best to get the money.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Briton Jane Rebecca Ong, once described by a Singapore judge as a modern-day Odysseus given her legal wrangles for nearly three decades, received a High Court boost last month in her bid to recover almost $1 million owed to her.

The sum is based on a 2007 legal costs bill due from the estate of her late mother-in-law, Madam Lim Lie Hoa, who died in 2009 at age 74.

Mrs Ong applied for the estate's executor, Mr Ong Siauw Ping, to be examined in court to determine how best to get the money, and this was allowed by High Court assistant registrar Jonathan Ng.

This is the first such reported case where the court has made clear that an estate's executor is liable to be examined in court over debts to be recovered from the estate. It is also a significant milestone for Mrs Ong, 57, who has been unyielding in her fight for a share in the estate of her father-in-law, Mr Ong Seng Keng, a prominent Indonesian businessman who died in a 1974 accident.

She separated from his son Ong Siauw Tjoan in 1987, but lived with their three children in a North London bungalow bought by her mother-in-law. In 1991, she began a series of legal battles with her mother-in-law for a share of Mr Ong Seng Keng's estate.

In 2005, Madam Lim legally forced the family out of the London home before selling it for £3.2 million a year later. She died four years later, leaving behind a series of court orders against Mrs Ong in relation to the house. But these orders have been set aside or stayed after a London court found in 2015 that Madam Lim had lied to the Singapore courts in 2004 when she denied creating a trust for the house.

A lengthy appeal process in London, by the executor of Madam Lim's estate, against the 2015 judgment ended in failure in the British Supreme Court last year. That meant Mrs Ong no longer owed Madam Lim 19 years of rent - calculated in 2007 to be £2.3 million.

 
 

Mrs Ong had applied to the London court to declare that there was a trust. Although she is not one of the beneficiaries, she stands to profit from Mr Ong Siauw Tjoan's share in the house under divorce proceedings. Her children are entitled to a 60 per cent share of the sale proceeds.

Mrs Ong's first success had been in 1996 in a Singapore court, which ordered an inquiry to determine the size of the family's estate to assess her share. She was awarded $3.2 million as a result of a 2002 inquiry by a High Court assistant registrar.

But the subsequent bill of costs awarded to her following the inquiry - a sum of $738,819.15 - remained unpaid as it was meant to offset the £2.3 million in unpaid rent she owed Madam Lim. However, the 2015 London court decision in her favour cancelled the unpaid rent owed - a change that meant the $738,819.15, with interest, was payable to her by Madam Lim's estate.

Mrs Ong's lawyer Andrew O'Hara had argued that court rules allow for an executor to be examined as the executor can convert the assets of the estate to cash and is duty-bound to pay off the dead person's debts.

He referred to Mr Ong Siauw Ping's statement that there had been no distribution from Madam Lim's estate "save for settling legal fees incurred in the litigation for and on behalf of (her) estate".

As of May 7 this year, the sum plus interest owed which Mrs Ong seeks to recover was $968,622.60, including over $9,000 in costs awarded to Mrs Ong in relation to a court hearing in February.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2019, with the headline 'Briton gets boost in bid to recover $1m from mother-in-law's estate'. Print Edition | Subscribe