The High Court ruled yesterday the Chinachem Charitable Foundation - set up by the late tycoon Nina Wang Kung Yu-sum - held her HK$83 billion fortune on trust rather than as an absolute beneficiary under her will.
As a trustee, the foundation must carry out terms of the will, including performing charitable works, rather than receive the estate as a gift free of obligations, Mr Justice Jeremy Poon Shiu-chor said in the Court of First Instance.
A lawyer said the judgment meant the foundation would face stiffer regulation of its operations and might be required to disclose its financial accounts.
Under Wang's will, the foundation is the sole owner of the Chinachem Group, one of the city's largest private developers.
The foundation had contended it was an absolute beneficiary and could decide on its own how to use the funds. Poon said it must follow Wang's direction to carry out charitable works.
Wang also stated in her will the foundation must support her late husband's family members and the Chinachem Group staff. Poon said this was not an obligation because the term was not clearly drafted, but the foundation did have discretionary power to decide when and how to provide for them.
Chinachem said it was "highly likely" it would file an appeal.
Wang's long-term personal assistant Ringo Wong Lai-chuen and her godson Anthony Quintin Cheung have claimed the foundation and the group were being mismanaged, and the husband's family members were insufficiently cared for.
Wang's siblings - brother Kung Yan-sum, and sisters Molly Gong Chung-sum and Kung Yan-sum - and two long-term Chinachem employees are the governors of the foundation.
Cheung said: "I truly hope that the ruling will put an end to all unnecessary legal proceedings over my godmother's estate."
Wong said: "Seeing the judgment today, I truly - I stress truly - feel that 'there is justice in heaven and on earth'. It's unlike how somebody used the term before."
Wong was referring to the comment "There is justice in heaven and on earth", which Nina Wang's brother Kung made every time after the foundation won a lawsuit.
Wong last month filed a complaint with the Independent Commission Against Corruption, details of which he said he could not reveal. He said he would also file another complaint with another enforcement agency soon.
Chinachem did not respond to the accusation over its management before deadline.
The justice secretary, as a protector of charities under law, requested last May a ruling following a disagreement with the foundation on arrangements and obligations under the will.
Solicitor Billy Ma Wah-yan said that as a trustee, the foundation must comply with the Trustee Ordinance. "It will have to ask the court for direction on whether it can charge fees. Directions should also be sought on investment decisions," he said.
Nina Wang, once Asia's richest woman, died in 2007 at the age of 70.