Branded a thief and a prostitute… by the sister who tried to steal our inheritance: Couple tell of their five-year ordeal in a £1million will row as cruel as it was calculating
- David Whittle was heartbroken when his father, Gerald, died in December 2016
- He was shocked to find he had been written out of his will weeks before his death
- It turned out David’s older sister, Sonia, had been spreading vile lies to his father
- She ranted to David’s father that he ‘was a violent man who assaulted women’
- She received the whole estate after Gerald died, sparking a five-year legal battle
- Now a judge has blasted Sonia for her ‘appalling’ lies and revoked Gerald’s will
As he walked towards his father’s room at his Oxfordshire care home, David Whittle could hear his older sister Sonia’s voice.
She was clearly agitated, but it was what she was saying, rather than the tone, that stopped David in his tracks.
‘She was reeling off a list of accusations about me and my wife, Julie, telling Dad I was a violent man who assaulted women and that I controlled a ring of prostitutes, with Julie among them,’ he recalls.
‘I was also a thief. I literally couldn’t believe what I was hearing.’
It was one of many extraordinary, vile lies which caused former chemical engineer Gerald — who would otherwise have died intestate — to write a last will and testament three weeks before he passed away, at the age of 92, in December 2016.
In it, he left his entire estate to Sonia Whittle and her partner of 30 years.
Gerald even told the solicitor, appointed by his 69-year-old daughter, to write in the will that he was ‘estranged’ from his son, a fact that was heartbreakingly untrue.
Her lies would trigger a five-year legal battle, which ended last week in a landmark ruling.
Labelling Sonia’s lies ‘disgraceful’ and ‘appalling’, District Judge Tony Woodburn found that not only had she exerted undue influence on her father but was guilty of ‘fraudulent calumny’ — a little-cited legal concept in which one person has lied about another to gain a financial advantage.
David Whittle from Wantage, Oxfordshire, and his wife Julie, who have fought a difficult but ultimately victorious will battle against David’s sister Sonia
It means that Gerald’s will has now been revoked and he reverts to being intestate.
His estate, worth £1 million, will be split equally between Sonia and David.
The money is not yet paid out, but the fact that Sonia will still inherit half is the least of what upsets David about the whole ordeal.
‘The worst part is that my dad died believing all these horrific things about me,’ says David.
‘That’s hard to live with. And they came from someone who, aside from my children, is my only surviving blood relative.’
For while David, a genial 64-year-old, would be the first to admit that he and his older sister were not especially close, he never believed them to have anything other than a perfectly ordinary sibling relationship.
Both were raised by Gerald, a war veteran and engineer for chemicals giant ICI, and their housewife mother Lorna in an upmarket Berkshire village.
David, who lives in Wantage, Oxfordshire, with Julie and their younger son, Richard, recalls Sonia as something of a bossyboots as a youngster, and while academic, he says she went off the rails as a teenager, leading to family rows.
‘Dad didn’t take kindly to the miniskirts and the boyfriends,’ he remembers.
‘Sonia also got expelled from school in her O-level year.’
Eventually, a particularly combustible row led to Sonia leaving home aged 16.
At 18 she returned with a man she went on to marry but the relationship didn’t last, and by her 20s Sonia had decided to become a holiday rep.
Sonia Whittle with her parents Gerald and Lorna. She would go on to tell vile lies about her brother David which would lead her father to cut him out of his will
David, meanwhile, was an apprentice engineer who went on to join the UK Atomic Energy Authority in 1980.
He met Julie in 1981 and they married six months later — their sons Matthew, now 40, and Richard, 37, arriving shortly afterwards.
While not particularly close to Sonia, the couple spent plenty of time with her over the years at the Oxfordshire farmhouse, worth around £800,000, to which Gerald and Lorna had moved and which remained the family home until Gerald’s death.
Julie taught Sonia to drive and there were several family get-togethers.
‘In the early years of our marriage, our relationship with Sonia was reasonably good,’ recalls David.
While they saw each other less as the years went on, relations remained cordial enough, and when the siblings’ mother died from bowel cancer in 2005 aged 77,
Sonia, by now retired, seemed happy, along with David, to support their widowed father.
David in particular visited regularly, often popping in on his lunch break.
By 2016, however, Gerald’s health deteriorated, and he was admitted into hospital with leukaemia and a litany of other conditions.
‘Until that point, Sonia and I had been having the normal sibling conversations about his care, but the day after Dad went to hospital, Sonia moved into his house and changed the locks, although as she had kept the door open when I visited, I did not discover this for several weeks until I tried to get access while she was out,’ says David.
Bemused at being unable to get into the family home, he phoned his sister, only to be subjected to a torrent of abuse.
‘It was extraordinary,’ he says.
‘The worst phone call I’ve ever had in my life, calling me every name under the sun.’
She accused his wife of being a prostitute when, in truth, she had spent all her time being a carer for Richard, who has Asperger’s syndrome.
David, pictured here with his parents Lorna and Gerald. He was left heartbroken to find his father had described him as being ‘estranged’ in his will
‘We were reeling,’ says Julie.
This was just the start.
The following day, David visited Gerald at his care home — where he had initially been listed as next of kin — to overhear Sonia repeating the claims to their father.
‘When I walked in the room, she started shaking. I said: “None of this is true, Dad”, then Sonia called me a “thieving b******”, among other things, before running off. Dad was getting very upset.’
On subsequent visits, David was questioned time and again by his father about Sonia’s accusations.
‘He would ask if I was a thief and whether Julie was a prostitute. I would calmly reason with him, and he would believe me — but then she would be back with her poison.’
Indeed, as Judge Woodburn put it: ‘There was no respite for Gerald from Sonia’s falsehoods. She was a constant.’
Worse was to come. David then discovered that Sonia had made herself next of kin, as well as get- ting power of attorney over her father’s estate.
‘This was odd because when I asked Dad, he said he had not signed anything over to her,’ he says.
In November 2016, matters escalated when David arrived at the care home to find his sister had taken their father back to the farmhouse.
David went straight there and after receiving no answer at the door, peered through a side window to see his father sitting in a chair.
‘He smiled and waved and tried to get up,’ recalls David.
‘Then Sonia came in, shouting at him. She then shouted that she was calling the police.’
True to her word, David returned home to be visited by a police officer who said they had been told he had threatened his sister with a gun.
‘It was ludicrous and thankfully no further action was taken,’ he says.
David struggled to understand how his relationship with his sister could unravel so dramatically in a matter of weeks.
‘It was hard to believe, but at that time my main concern was for Dad. I was worried enough to contact social services to say that I was concerned about his care.’
Alas, by now no longer the official next of kin and with no power of attorney, David was confronted by one brick wall after another.
‘We rang the police and tried to access social services many times, but we could never get anywhere,’ he says.
Meanwhile, although he didn’t know it at the time, in mid-November a solicitor visited the family home to draft the will for their father — with Sonia present.
The solicitor’s file records were later read out in court and relayed how Sonia had described David and Julie as ‘psychopaths’ and ‘criminals’ who had been removed from the will of Julie’s mother after doing some ‘terrible things’.
Gerald, pictured here before his death, was told by Sonia that David was a woman beater and ran a prostitution ring
She also claimed that David had stolen their father’s possessions for auction, among them cars and a large green Chinese vase.
Further duplicity followed.
When Gerald passed away in hospital in December 2016 — three weeks after writing his will — Sonia omitted to tell her brother.
Instead, David — who continued to be refused access to the family home, and who had been engaged in an ongoing battle with social services — learned the heartbreaking news during a phone call in February 2017.
‘Yet again I was trying to get help from social services but this time someone took pity on me and said the situation was very awkward as my father had died two months previously,’ David says.
‘It was horrendous to find out about his death that way.’
Later, David and Julie discovered that Sonia and her partner, Ray, had had their father cremated — expressly against his desire to be buried.
‘They would have had to drive past our house to reach the crematorium,’ David says, shaking his head.
Reeling from news of his father’s death, Gerald’s will was the last thing on David’s mind. But, over time, he decided to try and ascertain what his sister was up to.
‘I rang round all the local solicitors to see if a will had been lodged for my father and eventually got through to one in Didcot who confirmed my father’s will was lodged there — but they wouldn’t let me see it as they said they had “no instructions” to release it to me.’
Frustrated, David and his wife visited his father’s bank.
David, pictured, only found out about his father’s death two months after he had passed away when he contacted social services
‘They didn’t have a will on file but they were very helpful,’ David says.
‘We learned that there had been a lot of activity on my father’s account. After his death, up to six cheques a day had been written.’
All in all, Sonia had cleaned out £23,000 from a Lloyds Bank account and their father’s £80,000 building society savings.
David would also learn that she had sold various items from the family home through auctioneers before Gerald died, including the Chinese vase she had accused him of stealing.
It is at this point — and still unaware of the will’s contents — that David put what’s called a ‘caveat’ on probate, which can be done when suspicious circumstances arise around a will, meaning that it could not be actioned.
David admits he was stunned when he finally received a copy in June 2017 and found that his sister had been given the entirety of their father’s estate.
‘While I pretty much expected it, it was a shock to see it in writing, although it was even more horrible to read that we were estranged,’ he says.
The legal process that followed to prove the will was not legitimate was complicated by Sonia’s refusal to engage at all, other than sending several abusive letters to the courts making further outlandish and untrue claims.
Among them was one suggesting that Amanda Noyce, the Whittles’ solicitor, was engaged with them in a money laundering enterprise.
‘By then, we had got used to her ludicrous accusations,’ says David.
Meanwhile, Sonia’s defence was that while she had, indeed, made statements about her brother and his wife, she believed them to be true — a claim subsequently rubbished by the judge, who labelled them ‘strident, forceful and repeated falsehoods’.
‘I am sure it was tactical — she took the view that if she stalled and threw endless curveballs then we would run out of money,’ says David.
They nearly did, using all their savings to fund legal fees.
‘We had to put our life on hold,’ says Julie. ‘We haven’t had a holiday for six years.’
They also had to provide evidence of their good characters and that neither had a criminal conviction.
‘I had to submit a statement making it clear that I had never worked as a prostitute,’ says Julie. ‘I never envisaged I would be in that position!’
‘There were several times when I wish I had never started it,’ adds David. ‘But, ultimately, it was about what was right.’
They have, of course, now been vindicated, with the judge ruling entirely in their favour and awarding them full costs, estimated at more than £100,000.
Calling it a ‘landmark case’, their solicitor, Amanda Noyce, from Royds Withy King, said the combination of Sonia’s ‘egregious lies’ and the complex legalities made the litigation an uncommon occurrence.
‘It’s extremely rare for a court to find on the facts that undue influence has taken place to the standard of proof required to overturn a will — especially when the will is solicitor-drawn,’ says Amanda.
It’s unclear how the money Sonia took from Gerald’s bank accounts, which also formed part of his estate, will be refunded.
Victory, however, is bittersweet. As David points out: ‘We lost five years fighting this. It was all so unnecessary.’
Worse, he is left mourning a father who went to his grave believing the worst possible things about his son.
‘Now he will never know the truth,’ he says.
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