Bernard Matthews’ adopted children overturn his dying wish to leave £12m villa to long-term partner

PUBLISHED: 11:11 06 September 2012 | UPDATED: 12:35 06 September 2012

Bernard Matthews at Great Witchingham Hall, the centre of his turkey empire, in 1995
Photo: Bill Smith

Bernard Matthews at Great Witchingham Hall, the centre of his turkey empire, in 1995 Photo: Bill Smith

The three adopted children of Norfolk turkey tycoon Bernard Matthews have overturned his dying wish to leave a £12m French villa to the woman who consoled him in his final years.

Mr Matthews died at the age of 80 in 2010, leaving behind a £40m estate founded on the success of his Great Witchingham-based poultry empire.

One of his three wills expressed a desire to leave the luxury Mediterranean property at Villa Bolinha, in Ramatuelle, near Saint-Tropez, to his long-term partner Odile Marteyn.

But it has emerged in a High Court case that his adopted children, Kathleen, Jason and Victoria, were not content to abide by their father’s wish and insisted on their own legal right to a stake in the property.

Judge Nicholas Strauss QC said Mr Matthews knew his children were entitled to 75pc of Villa Bolinha under French inheritance laws, regardless of his will, so he wrote a letter to his family four years before his death pleading with them to give up their rights.

Mr Matthews’ letter says: “Odile has supported me unfailingly for many years and particularly so during my recent illnesses. Without such support, I might not have been able to continue directing our family company for our mutual benefit.

“In reaching my decision I have taken into account the fact that each of you is very well housed with at least one property each and that, directly or indirectly, I have provided financially for each of you over a very long period of years.

“I wish the French villa to continue to be occupied and enjoyed and consider Odile would be the best person to take on this responsibility.”

Although Mr Matthews had remained married to his wife Joyce, the mother of his adopted children, the couple had lived apart for 35 years.

Mrs Matthews had helped build the family business and had a 32pc share of Bernard Matthews Holdings when her husband died.

Having been left nothing by their father, Kathleen, Jason and Victoria argued that they had “no choice” but to exercise their rights to a 56.25pc share in the villa.

The successful challenge leaves Odile with just 43.75pc of the property, but Judge Strauss said: “She accepts that there is nothing she can do about this”.

The judge said Mr Matthews wanted to leave Villa Bolinha as well as all his “movable property” in France to Odile in his two French wills. She was also left £1m under his English will, with the majority of the businessman’s fortune going to his son Frederick Elgershuizen, fathered with Dutch aristocrat Cornelia Elgershuizen after the breakdown of his marriage.

At the High Court hearing, the adopted children also argued that the £2m inheritance tax they are liable to pay on their share of the villa should be paid out of their father’s English estate.

However, rejecting their arguments, Judge Strauss said Mr Matthews had clearly wished Odile to inherit the entire villa and to have her French inheritance tax bill paid from his estate.

He concluded: “For this reason, I hold that the adopted children have no right under the English will to have their tax liability discharged, or to be reimbursed if they have paid it.”

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