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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Sibling squabble over late brother's Meccano set goes to court

There is a recent story from New Zealand about the estate of Bert van der Lubbe, who died in 2015. Mr van der Lubbe did not have a spouse or children. He left two wills, one from 2002 and one from 2013. In the earlier will, he left everything equally among his siblings. In the later will, he left out two of his sisters, Catherine and Mary.

The estate wasn't large. There were two main assets. One was a run-down piece of property which he owned in part with Catherine and her husband. The other asset was his collection of Meccano sets.

You might think that if there were to be a fight on this estate, it would be over the property. As it turns out, the real dispute was about the Meccano sets. Catherine had possession of them and refused to hand them over to Jacobus, the brother who was acting as executor under the 2013 will. She said she didn't trust him to handle the Meccano sets. Accusations began to fly between all of the siblings and things heated up. These disputes are never clean and this case was no exception. The rest of this large family chimed in as well.

The executor said that his siblings were like a "lynch mob". They were not happy that Jacobus didn't produce the 2013 will until a number of weeks after they had begun to work with the 2002 will. They said there was no transparency in how he was dealing with the estate. They brought an application to have him removed as executor and to replace him with another of the siblings, Vlaar. Even though several of the siblings agreed that Vlaar should be the replacement executor, the court refused to allow this. The judge said that the family had "irreconcilable differences".

To read about this case in more detail, click here to see a story from www.stuff.co.nz.

To the eye of an outsider, cases like this don't make a lot of sense. Who would go to court over a Meccano set, you might ask. But these fights are not really about Meccano sets or grandmother's teapot or Dad's watch. They are about emotions and sibling relationships.People are fighting to win against real or perceived threats to their ideas about their family, and the physical manifestation of the dispute - such as a Meccano set - is usually irrelevant. They don't want people to get away with what they see as fraudulent, disrespectful, or greedy behaviour. The emotions run much, much more deeply than they would with strangers. As my clients so frequently say to me, "it's about the principle of the thing".

In this case, the judge refused to appoint Vlaar, a sibling who was willing to replace the executor, and instead appointed the Public Trust, a neutral third party. I completely agree with that decision. Putting Vlaar in place wouldn't solve a single thing. The issues would still exist. The emotions and rivalries and alliances would still exist. The fighting would probably go on exactly as before, simply with Jacobus being more angry and Vlaar and her cohorts feeling victorious. The family would most certainly be back in court before too long. Taking control of this matter away from the foolishness of these supposed adults was the right thing to do.

We can all learn a lesson from this case. The van der Lubbe siblings have now discovered that if they all dig in their heels and refuse to work together, the estate can easily be gobbled up by legal fees so that they end up with nothing. And the court is going to take away the one thing they all wanted the most - control - because they couldn't compromise.

The above photo of the Meccano set accompanied the article in www.stuff.co.nz and is credited to Les Meloures/Wikipedia.



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