An eminent scientist and inventor’s wish to endow a foundation to benefit orphans may be frustrated after his widow signed potentially conflicting wills, giving rise to venomous family wrangling and costly litigation on either side of the channel.
The widow, who had substantial assets in a number of countries, had made one will in England, benefiting her niece, and another in the Netherlands which named an orphans’ foundation as her sole heir. The foundation was named after her deceased husband and the Dutch will, which narrowly post-dated the English document, strictly stipulated that her relatives should derive no benefit from her estate.
The two wills had given rise to a wide-ranging dispute between the widow’s two brothers, her niece, various other members of the family and the foundation. Issues had arisen as to whether either will had been properly executed and as to whether the widow was of sound mind when she signed them. There was also a debate as to whether the Dutch will had revoked the English document.
The brothers had launched proceedings in England and asked the High Court to block parallel proceedings brought by the niece and the foundation in the Netherlands. It was submitted that the Dutch proceedings were vexatious and oppressive and that England was the natural forum in which all the issues should be resolved.
The Court observed that it was ‘most unfortunate’ that there should be concurrent proceedings in two different jurisdictions, giving rise to a risk of conflicting judicial decisions. However, in refusing to grant an anti-suit injunction to stop the Dutch proceedings, the Court found that they could not be viewed as unconscionable, unjust or abusive.