High Court dismisses man's suit to have sisters, late mother's estate pay family business debt

SINGAPORE - Two sisters were content to let "sleeping dogs lie" after they discovered that their brother had used funds from the family business for his own family's expenses.

However, they decided to bring the matter to light after his son, on his behalf, decided to sue them and their late mother's estate over debts owed by the business to a bank.

The High Court eventually dismissed the lawsuit against Ms Lee Gin Hong and Ms Lee Gim Moi, holding that their brother, Mr Lee Ker Min, ought to account for the money that he had withdrawn for his personal use.

According to the judgment dated July 30, Mr Lee's father - Mr Lee Kim Eng - started Lee Huat Company as a sole proprietorship in 1958.

The business, which is a retailer for motorcycles, motor scooters and related accessories as well as a workshop, operates at a shophouse in Upper Bukit Timah Road.

In 1975, Mr Lee Ker Min was appointed a partner in the business. His mother, Madam Ng Ang Chum, was also registered as a partner after the elder Mr Lee died about six years later.

In July 2014, Mr Lee Ker Min suffered a stroke that incapacitated him, and the business was subsequently managed by his second son, Mr Jeffrey Lee Kai Leong.

Madam Ng died in December that year, and her daughters - Ms Lee Gin Hong and Ms Lee Gim Moi - became executors of her estate.

Tensions later arose between the sisters and their brother's family over the repayment of the partnership's overdraft facility with United Overseas Bank, which was obtained in 2000.

Mr Lee Ker Min then sued his sisters through his elder son, Mr Roland Lee Kai Teck, in 2018.

In the suit, Mr Lee Ker Min sought a declaration from the court that the partnership had a debt of $740,214 to the bank at the time of Madam Ng's death and that his sisters had to pay half of it as executors of his mother's estate.

Among other claims, he said that his sisters had acted in bad faith in administering his mother's estate.

Mr Roland Lee, told the court in an affidavit that Madam Ng was an "extremely smart woman" who was "well versed" with every aspect of the business.

He also said that Madam Ng retained control of the business after his father suffered a stroke, with his aunts running it and instructing his brother, Mr Jeffrey Lee.

In contrast, the sisters, in their testimony, said that Madam Ng was illiterate, never received any profits from the business while she was a partner, and did not take part in running the business.

Their brother had managed the business on his own until his stroke, after which Mr Jeffrey Lee took over, they added.

They also said that Mr Lee Ker Min had used large sums - totalling almost $2.6 million - from the partnership's funds, such as the overdraft facility and its other bank accounts, for his personal expenses across the years. Such expenses included the purchase of several properties and investment in other businesses.

Ruling in favour of the sisters, Senior Judge Lai Siu Chiu said in her judgment that the money taken by Mr Lee is a debt owed to Madam Ng, and therefore to her estate.

Until the debt is settled and repaid, Madam Ng's estate is not obliged to repay half of the business' debt to the bank, the judge said.

She said that the sisters could choose to apply for an inquiry to trace and recover the money that Mr Lee had withdrawn from the business.

Senior Judge Lai also said that it was absurd for Mr Lee to have refused to admit that Madam Ng was illiterate when one of his own witnesses had already stated this was so.

"The court finds it disgraceful and deplorable that the plaintiff's sons/family have chosen to sue their paternal aunts and their grandmother's estate after the plaintiff was incapacitated by a stroke and at the same time, refuse to repay or account for all/any of the monies the plaintiff took from the partnership," she added.

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