Two siblings committed civil fraud in selling their late father’s home on foot of a death certificate for a woman with the same name as their stepmother, who was alive at the time, a court has ruled.
The Court of Appeal heard the stepmother, Maureen Moore, had married John G Moore, a widower, in 1971. They bought a house at Mount Tallant Avenue in Dublin in their joint names in 1975.
Ms Moore claimed she had to leave there in 1983 due to her husband’s allegedly violent behaviour. Her solicitor wrote to her husband four months later in connection with her interest in the property but got no reply.
Ms Moore moved to Belgium for many years, suffered two severe illnesses from cancer and returned in 2002 to live with her mother at Laburnum Square, North Road, Drogheda.
When she later discovered her husband had died intestate in 1996 and the house at Mount Tallant Avenue had been sold for €254,000 in 2002 by his children John and Maria, she took proceedings.
Ms Moore, then aged 71, was still alive when her case opened at the High Court in 2010 but died after evidence in the case concluded. A personal representative of her estate continued the case.
In late 2010, the High Court rejected the claims the stepchildren acted fraudulently by getting a death certificate in Maureen Moore’s name and found that arose due to mistake.
The certificate related to a different woman of the same name, Maureen Moore, of Kilmacud, Dublin, who died in 1995.
John Moore (43) Woodstock Park, Knocklyon, Dublin 16, and his sister Maria Byrne (41) Oakdale Crescent, Ballycullen, Co Dublin both denied civil fraud or that they knew or ought to have known the death certificate was not that of Ms Moore.
They said they searched for, but were unable to locate her, and genuinely believed she was dead. They also denied she was forced out of the property years earlier.
The High Court held there was no evidence of civil fraud by the siblings. It held, because their mistake had resulted in Ms Moore being unable to take out her legal share of her late husband’s estate, she was entitled to damages.
It dismissed an application requiring Nadine Chetty, who bought the Mount Tallant property in October 2002 but lives in the Middle East, to deliver up the property to Ms Moore.
An appeal was brought by Ms Moore’s estate and, by a two to one majority on Thursday, the appeal court allowed the appeal concerning the siblings but dismissed the estate’s appeal against the High Court finding in favour of Ms Chetty.
Mr Justice Paul Gilligan, with whom Mr Justice Gerard Hogan agreed, said the accepted evidence was, when the siblings got the death certificate in 2000, they made "no effort whatsoever" to try and ascertain whether it related to their stepmother when any number of avenues open to them would have revealed it did not.
While they said they genuinely believed it did relate to their stepmother, the reality was, in the civil sense of fraud and the particular circumstances, they behaved recklessly and carelessly as to whether the death certificate was truly their stepmother’s when they proposed to rely on it to regularise title of the property .
The High Court erred in not considering the consequences of their decision that the death certificate was that of their stepmother when it was not, having regard to the “significant benefit” to them from such a mistake.
Because Ms Chetty was not on notice of this and bought the property on the open market for full value, the court dismissed the estate’s appeal concerning the purchaser.
The estate must pay the purchaser’s legal costs but is entitled to be indemnified by the siblings in that regard, he held.
Ms Justice Máire Whelan dissented, saying she did not consider Ms Moore had met the threshold required for an appellate court to set aside the High Court findings.