High Court reporters
The wife of the legendary late jockey and horse trainer, Bunny Cox, procured the transfer of her husband’s multi-million Euro estate into their joint names shortly before his death through presumed undue influence, the High Court has ruled.
However, Sally Cox, widow of Bunny who died aged 81 in January 2006, had not acted in any sinister or wrongful way towards her husband, Mr Justice Denis McDonald said.
But, the judge said, the transfer of ownership of the estate – estimated to be worth more than €30 million – clearly did not reflect Mr Cox’s wish to provide for both his wife and all his children.
On the basis of equitable principles, he made an order that the March 2005 deed of transfer of the estate from Mr Cox’s sole name to their joint names should be set aside.
It means that a new will he made around three months after the transfer will now apply. That will left 50 per cent to his wife,10 per cent each to his three daughters, Jennifer, Suzanne and Michelle and 20 per cent to his son Richard.
The case concerned some 180 acres and the family home at Lisnawilly, Dundalk, which in the early 2000s had changed from being just farmland to very valuable development land on the edge of the town.
The case first began in 2018 when a court-appointed administrator of the Cox estate brought proceedings claiming Mrs Cox had procured the ownership transfer by duress and/or undue influence.
Mrs Cox denied the claims. She also made the case that the new 2005 will was signed in circumstances where her husband did not have mental capacity due to “potent medication” he was on.
Following negotiations however, the case was settled on May 9th, 2018, on terms including that Mrs Cox would sell part of the lands and, from the proceeds, payments would be made to the children.
However, it subsequently transpired that before the settlement that Mrs Cox had entered into a deal with solar energy company to purchase the lands which were to be sold to pay the children. Soleirtricity Ltd had been granted an option to buy the land unknown to Mrs Cox’s children.
The case was re-entered on the application of the estate administrator. Mrs Cox claimed she had not signed the 2018 settlement agreement of her own volition and had been “intimidated, bullied and coerced” into signing it.
When the case resumed in April last year, Mrs Cox had discharged her lawyers and represented herself.
The court heard that by 2004, Mr Cox was seriously ill and was in and out of hospital. In a 1991 will, he had left the estate to his wife.
His daughters maintained it was always their father’s intention that all the children would get a share of the estate.
Michelle Cox, who was handling her father’s post as he was ill, came across a letter containing the 1991 will which shocked her and her sisters.
The court heard Michelle and Jennifer went to Louth County Hospital to ask their ill father about the 1991 will and found him crying on the phone to their mother. He told his daughters that it was “an old farmer’s will” and “not my will”. Several days later he told Michelle he had “made things right”.
This was a reference to what would be a new will he made in June 2005 leaving 50pc to the mother and the rest to the children.
Mr Justice McDonald said it was clear Mr Cox wished to benefit his children to the extent provided for in the 2005 will. The earlier deed of transfer of ownership “entirely undermined that objective”.
He was satisfied Mr Cox clearly did not realise the effect of the deed of transfer and that it would override any subsequent will.
This disadvantage to Mr Cox’s interests, taken together with the relationship of trust and confidence reposed by him in Mrs Cox, was sufficient to give rise to the presumption that the transfer was procured through presumed undue influence, he said.
This did not mean Mrs Cox exerted some sinister influence or behaved wrongfully towards her husband, he stressed. A presumption of this kind arises by virtue of “the application of longstanding equitable principles which are designed to protect vulnerable people against misplaced largesse”, he said.
The judge also dismissed Mrs Cox’s claim that the 2005 will and a later codicil, were procured through undue influence or duress.