Millionaire husband wins claim over $20m Chancery Lane bungalow

A tussle by a couple in their 80s over who owned a $20 million bungalow in Chancery Lane has been settled in favour of the husband by the High Court.

Justice Choo Han Teck found retired businessman See Fong Mun, 86, had paid for the house that was bought in 1983 but registered in the name of his wife Chan Yuen Lan, 88.

At the heart of the issue was whether the property belonged to the person who paid for it or the person in whose name it was registered.

The case helps make clear that a registered legal owner of a property paid for by another can be treated as a trustee of the property for the payer, who is the real owner of the benefit from the property. To arrive at the decision, the court will look at all the circumstances, including the intention of the parties at the time of purchase and from whom the monies came, and decide if it was being held either in a resulting or constructive trust.

In the case of the Chancery Lane bungalow, Justice Choo found that it was held in a resulting trust because from the start, the couple had both intended for the property to belong to Mr See.

Three days before the purchase was made in 1983, Madam Chan signed a power of attorney authorising her husband and their eldest child Cliff to take charge and manage the house. But in April 2011, she revoked the 1983 power of attorney, a move that prompted her husband to seek a High Court order to nullify her action.

In his written judgment released yesterday, Justice Choo noted wryly in the opening sentence: “This is a case about an old folks’ home – a very large and expensive house.” The now-retired Mr See was the sole breadwinner except for one year, and Madam Chan depended on the household income he gave her, the judge noted.

Mr See was a self-made millionaire who started two companies. In 1983, when he turned 55, he bought the bungalow with money put together from various sources, such as his Central Provident Fund savings and a $290,000 loan from Madam Chan. Justice Choo found the loan was repaid and could not be considered as her share of the purchase of the house.

Mr See claimed his wife had asked for the property to be put in her name “as the husbands of all her friends had done so and she wished to flaunt it to her friends”. Mr See agreed in exchange for her written agreement confirming that he was the sole and ultimate owner.

Our Mr Lim Seng Siew was instructed as Counsel acting for Mr See.