Post-Mortem Vigilance Failed to Defuse Family Dispute


A widow who hesitated for more than six years before taking legal action, despite her conviction that her wealthy husband had not made reasonable financial provision for her in his will, has paid a heavy price after the Court of Appeal ruled that her claim had rightly been dismissed on grounds of delay.

Successful solicitor and property investor, Clive Zola Berger, who left a £7.5 million fortune, had written a letter shortly before he died urging his sons to maximise their step-mother’s income for her lifetime and to avoid family squabbling over his estate. He signed off with the words “I shall be watching!”

But the prospect of post-mortem surveillance was not enough to prevent a bitter legal tussle in which his widow, Rosana Berger, accused her stepsons, as executors of the estate, of starving her of the income she needed to live in reasonable comfort. The 84-year-old argued that she needed more than £220,000-a-year to keep herself in the style that her husband had clearly intended.

Lawyers representing Mrs Berger submitted that her net income of £72,000-a-year was nowhere near enough to maintain her home – an eight-bedroom mansion valued at £4.5 million over which she holds a life tenancy, to pay her domestic staff and to cover her other reasonable out-goings.

She launched proceedings under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependents) Act 1975 seeking reasonable provision from her husband’s estate. However, her claim was dismissed on the basis that it had been brought far outside the strict six-month time limit laid down by the statute. The Court of Appeal noted that although she had been understandably reluctant to air the family dispute in court, the delay of more than six-and-a-half years meant that it was inappropriate for her claim to proceed.

Mr and Mrs Berger were together for 36 years until his death and she had helped to bring up her step-sons from boyhood. His estate included half of a £1.2 million ranch in Arizona, three London flats and shares in his property company worth almost £3 million. Less than three months before he died, he had written a letter urging his sons to use their best endeavours to maximise their step-mother’s income and to “make absolutely sure that the estate is not involved in the arguments and problems that can so often arise in probate.”

Shaun Underhill, a Partner at Shentons Solicitors in Winchester, commented “This case illustrates the importance of seeking legal advice as soon as possible in the event of any dispute over the contents of a will. We would be happy to assist anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation to that of Mrs Berger”.