Sir Robert Hotung's great-grandson loses estate claim

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2009, 12:00am

A great-grandson of Sir Robert Hotung yesterday lost his bid for a piece of the eminent Hong Kong businessman's estate.

The Court of First Instance dismissed Sean Hotung's lawsuit against HSBC, the will's trustee, which claimed he and several other great-grandchildren were beneficiaries to the family patriarch's fortune.

At issue was whether money left to Sir Robert's great-grandchildren included offspring who were not yet born at the time of the businessman's death in 1956.

Mr Hotung, son of billionaire philanthropist Eric Hotung, was born nine years after his great-grandfather died. Some of his siblings were also born after Sir Robert's death. That meant they should not receive any money from the estate, HSBC argued.

Sean Hotung's claim turned on a particular phrase in his great-grandfather's will that referred to HK$5,000 being left to each of 'my grandchildren and great-grandchildren'.

Mr Justice Andrew Chung On-tak, in a decision released yesterday, wrote: 'It is [HSBC's] contention that phrase was intended to refer only to those of [Sir Robert's] great-grandchildren who were either already born, or at least conceived at the time of the will (alternatively, at the time of the testator's death).

'I agree with the defendant and disagree with the plaintiff [Sean Hotung].' Yesterday, Mr Hotung said: 'At this point, my only comment is that I'm most appreciative for the good grace extended to me by the honourable justice; and the gentlemanly manner in which the defendant conducted themselves during oral argument.'

It was unclear if he would appeal.

Mr Justice Chung upheld a general legal principle against widening the pool of estate beneficiaries to include unborn offspring, unless they are specifically included in the will, said estates lawyer Herbert Tsoi Hak-kong. Otherwise, will executors would have to wait until there was no possibility of future offspring before they paid beneficiaries. That could mean waiting until the death of some beneficiaries themselves, he added.

'The law is quite clear,' Mr Tsoi said. 'The court would like to have certainty so things don't carry on without an end. Otherwise, the executors could never conclude the will.'

The lawsuit came several years after the High Court ruled Eric Hotung had no right to disinherit Sean and another son, Anthony, from two trusts worth HK$100 million.

The Hotung clan had a falling out when the two brothers investigated a pair of secret trusts set up for six of the eight Hotung children in 1979. The trusts were to be paid out when Eric Hotung died.