A Merewether woman’s death laid a family’s history bare
IN 2015 the University of NSW Law Journal carried an article titled “Estate Contestation in : An Empirical Study of a Year of Case Law”.
It looked at the high costs when families slug it out over the wills of loved ones. Or not so loved ones, as thecase can often be.
The article noted what most people already know –that when these battles ended up in court, the costs can be eye-watering. It is not unheard-of for the legal bills to be greater than the percentage of an estate left for the claimants.
The other costs can be even greater than money.
An unintended consequence of fighting over wills in court is that our courts are open.
“Engagement withlegal processes also shifts private life into the public domain, requiring families to air their ‘dirty laundry’,” the article said.
“This loss of privacy can cause not only embarrassment and reputational damage, it can also be a source of further family conflict with the family member who has brought such matters to public view.”.
An example is the case this week of a Merewether family and what happened after Beryl Hughes died in August, 2015.
The family’s history is laid out in thousands of words on a public access site administered by the NSW Government’s Justice Department.
We know that Beryl was 87 when she died after living a fairly ordinary life, until her son David flew to Thailand in 1984, and at the age of 25 was charged with heroin offences and sentenced to 25 years in a Bangkok jail.
She was a casual employee at a local Coles store. Her husband John was a Newcastle dock worker. They bought their Merewether house in 1971 and it cost them $14,600.
We know that in her will Beryl expressed some sadness. She left the vast majority of her estate to her granddaughter Erin, David’s only daughter, because she was the only family member who cared for her after John died in 2010.
There is no doubt that Beryl would have had no idea that not long after her death, her decision to leave her only surviving son just $25 would become public knowledge.
Because the financial and personal circumstances of claimants is a key element in how contested wills are disbursed, those details of people’s lives are laid bare in courts and judgments as a permanent and public record. Worth remembering.