A Feudingfamily has been warned the estate of a North East property tycoon could vanish into lawyers’ pockets if they cannot settle their differences.
The will of Godfrey ‘Goff’ Burnard has been at the centre of a fierce legal battle ever since his death aged 76 in September 2007.
In a plot reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, Mr Burnard’s grown-up sons Graham, Paul and Daniel have been at war with their elderly stepmother, Stella, since his death.
During his working life, Mr Burnard built up a valuable real estate portfolio - including four properties in Station Road, Whitley Bay, and another in King Street, Penrith - that became the focus of the venomous dispute over the terms of his will.
Judge John Behrens said that “upwards of £200,000” in legal costs had been racked up during Mr Burnard’s “long and acrimonious” divorce from his first wife Patricia in the 1990s. She is the mother of his sons.
Describing Mr Burnard as “devious, wily and cynical”, a divorce judge had “urged the parties to find some form of compromise and reminded them of what happened in Bleak House” - the classic Dickens novel in which a long-running litigation destroys the funds from an estate.
But those words have not discouraged bitter in-fighting between his sons and Stella over the terms of the entrepreneur’s will and the distribution of his property holdings, which were held in a complex corporate structure.
Mr Burnard had moved to Portugal with Stella before his death and died from bowel cancer. A long-term sufferer from high blood pressure, he underwent five heart bypass operations.
Now, following a High Court hearing, Judge Behrens has made various rulings relating to the interpretation of Mr Burnard’s will and the destination of his assets, but noted that his decision still left a number of issues unresolved.
He added: “It is self evident that this is not the end of the case, it leaves a number of matters unanswered.”
But, in a dire warning to the family, he said: “When the divorce proceedings were before a judge, he urged the parties to compromise and commented on the vast amount of costs that had been spent. The costs involved in this litigation must also be vast.
“Substantial more costs will have to be spent to determine the outstanding issues. I can only repeat the judge’s plea that the parties should now attempt to put their heads together and reach some sensible solution. Otherwise, the whole estate will vanish in costs.”
Mr Burnard worked as an accountant in Whitley Bay and met Stella in about 1980. At that time she was operating a garment factory employing about 100 staff and she retained Mr Burnard to help her in her business.
In 1985 - following the break-up of their marriages - Stella and Mr Burnard moved into a flat in Whitley Bay before Mr Burnard bought Marbury House, described as a “a large house in Gosforth”.
In December 1994, Stella and Mr Burnard married and the couple gradually spent more time in Portugal. It was their intention to live off the income from the properties.
According to Stella, Mr Burnard’s three sons took over the accountancy business. When he fell ill in 2007 Mr Burnard travelled to his son Graham’s home in Woodstone Village, County Durham, where he is said to have signed over the transfer of one of his Whitley Bay properties to Paul. Mr Burnard died the following day.
During the High Court hearing handwriting experts also said there was “strong positive evidence to support the view that Mr Burnard’s signature on forms is not genuine” in the signing over of shares to his son. Both Graham and Paul denied forging the signature.