Court partly allows appeal in $20m house spat

Court partly allows appeal in $20m house spat

COUPLES buying property might do well at that point to seriously weigh how it should be divided if the relationship breaks down, however "unpleasant and uncomfortable" such discussions can be.

This could prevent court spats over property if the relationship does break down, but is often not done, said the Court of Appeal in judgment grounds last week.

The apex court's remarks came after partly allowing the appeal filed by a woman, then 88, in an ownership tussle with her husband, 86, over a $20 million house.

Madam Chan Yeun Lan died earlier this year, after her appeal was heard against a High Court decision holding that the Chancery Lane bungalow belonged wholly to her husband, Mr See Fong Mun.

The apex court, comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and Judges of Appeal Andrew Phang and V.K. Rajah, ruled that she was entitled to 15.8 per cent of the property, in proportion to her financial contribution at the time of purchase, back in 1983.

Although the house was registered in her name, the remaining 84.2 per cent was held on trust for Mr See, the court ruled.

"We are satisfied that there was sufficient evidence that Mr See did not intend to benefit Madam Chan by any of his financial contribution to the purchase price of the property," said the court in its written reasons for the ruling.

Mr See, a retired businessman, bought the house in 1983 for $1.78 million, using his own monies and overdrafts as well as $290,000 from Madam Chan's savings. Three days before the purchase, she signed a power of attorney authorising Mr See and their eldest son to take charge and manage the property.

But in April 2011, she revoked the 1983 power of attorney - a move that prompted her husband to seek a High Court order to nullify her action, which led to the present case.

His lawyers Lim Seng Siew and Lai Swee Fung argued in the appeal that the judge had rightly found that Madam Chan's contribution was meant to be a loan to be repaid by Mr See, who funded the entire purchase price.

They pointed to evidence such as the power of attorney, to show that he intended to retain beneficial ownership of the property.

Madam Chan, represented by Senior Counsel Engelin Teh and lawyer Simon Jones, said objective evidence from certain documents at the time showed he had agreed to give her the property in return for her contributions.

The nub lay in whether the property belonged to the person who had paid for it or the person in whose name it was registered.

The appeal court noted that Madam Chan's memory deficit underscored the events surrounding the property purchase some 30 years ago. It was understandable that the documentary evidence was not complete.

The court found evidence of the parties' common intention in 1983 in relation to the property "unsatisfactory", and apportioned the couple's shares based on their financial contributions.

The double-storey house sits on a plot of land just over 20,000 sq ft, and is a good class bungalow in an upscale neighbourhood.

The couple married in 1957 and had three children, now in their 50s. The now-retired Mr See, the sole breadwinner except for one year, was a self-made millionaire who started two companies.

He kept a mistress for decades but did not divorce his wife, and the house remained their matrimonial home.

Madam Chan had lived in it since 1983. When the lawsuit started, she moved out, but not at his behest.


This article was first published on June 30, 2014.
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