Litigation gobbles up man’s estate as widow and daughters slug it out in court
The estate of a Cape Town father has strained relations between his widow and his children from a previous marriage.
Stanley Hannath’s widow, Sally Ann Brimble-Hannath, hung out the family’s dirty linen during litigation over the estate in the high court in Cape Town.
She applied to have Hannath’s daughters, Erica Hannath and Carolyn Fisher, removed as executors of their father’s estate.
In his ruling, judge Ashley Binns-Ward said the litigation could have been avoided had Brimble-Hannath and her stepdaughters talked things through.
“This is a case that should never have come before court if only the parties on both sides had dealt with the issues more constructively than they did,” he said.
“It is unfortunate that it has because the matter concerns the winding-up of a deceased estate of relatively modest value, which, to the disadvantage of everyone concerned, will be materially eroded by the cost of the litigation.”
Brimble-Hannath and Hannath were married out of community of property “with the exclusion of the accrual system”. Hannath’s daughters were coexecutors of his estate.
“The will is a simple one,” Binns-Ward said in his judgment.
“Apart from a few modest monetary bequests (which are uncontentious), it grants [Brimble-Hannath] for the remainder of her life the right to use and reside at the Noordhoek property that had been her and the testator’s place of residence at the time of the latter’s demise and provides for the residue of the estate, including the forementioned Noordhoek property, to devolve on an existing trust of which [Hannath’s daughters] are (with one other) co-trustees and also beneficiaries.
“The will did not provide any settlement on [Brimble-Hannath] to provide for her maintenance. It is undisputed that she is entitled in the circumstances to make a claim against the deceased estate.”
Trouble started when Hannath’s daughters tried to wind up their father’s estate and made no provision for Brimble-Hannath’s maintenance as the surviving spouse. This was after she failed to submit a maintenance claim even after being reminded to do so.
Brimble-Hannath then objected to the liquidation and distribution of Hannath’s assets and launched an application for the removal of the executors, claiming her stepdaughters were unsuitable and had a conflict of interest.
“The alleged conflict of interest is said to arise from [Hannath’s daughters’] position as trustees and beneficiaries of the trust to which the testator left the bulk of his estate,” the judgment reads.
“In their capacities as trustees, the [daughters] lodged a claim by the trust against the deceased estate in the sum of approximately R4.4m predicated on the deceased’s debit loan account.
"[Fisher] testified that the deceased had borrowed the amount from the trust to purchase the Noordhoek property. The trustees’ claim is reflected as having been accepted by the executrices in the liquidation and distribution account they lodged with the master [of the high court].
"[Brimble-Hannath] questions the existence of any such claim and complains that the [daughters] have denied her access to the trust’s records to investigate it.”
Brimble-Hannath argued that the “trust’s claim against the deceased estate ‘eats into the finite pie’ available in the deceased estate to satisfy her maintenance claim”.
Binns-Ward said: “Judged by the information in the liquidation and distribution account, that is an understatement.
“From the figures provided in the account it is apparent that were both claims accepted at their stated values, the estate would be unable to meet them in full, and accordingly be demonstrably insolvent.”
The judge said it was undesirable for Hannath’s daughters to remain as executors of his estate.
“I am accordingly satisfied, in the context of [Brimble-Hannath] disputing of the trust’s claim against the estate, woolly as her grounds for doing so might appear to be at this stage, that it is undesirable that [Hannath’s daughters], who are the co-trustees and beneficiaries of the trust, should remain in office as executrices of the deceased’s estate,” he said.