Cleaner wins bitter legal battle for £500k inheritance from family of deceased

Where there’s a will, there’s a WAR: For 11 years ex-Savoy waiter was cared for by his cleaner and left her his £500k home as a token of gratitude… to the fury family members. The result? A bitter four-year legal battle and a victory for KINDNESS

  • Leonora Da Costa looked after Harold Tickner after the death of his wife in 2012
  • Days before Tickner’s death in 2015 he gave his house and money to relatives even though he had made Leonora the main beneficiary of his will in 2014
  • A judge has now ruled that he lacked the mental capacity to know what he was doing and therefore Leonora has won a High Court battle to overturn the will

Ask Sofia Da Costa what she remembers of the man who was her mother’s boss for 11 years and she has just one word: ‘Pancakes.’

As a little girl, Sofia — now 17 and hoping to start a medical degree in September — spent Saturday mornings perched in Harold Tickner’s kitchen, tucking into piles of pancakes, while her mother Leonora pottered around with a duster.

‘It was a treat which became a tradition,’ smiles Leonora, 50. ‘It started when Mr Tickner asked me to make pancakes. I was brought up in Portugal where we don’t eat them, so I didn’t have a clue. But Sofia had been learning how to make pancakes at school that week. So she came around and cooked them.

‘Mr Tickner was thrilled. They sat there, maple syrup dripping onto their plates, chatting and laughing. It was just lovely.

‘He was such a wise, kind gentleman. He had so much to teach Sofia and, like most elderly people, he loved being around children.’

The carer: Leonora Da Costa looked after Harold Tickner after the death of his wife in 2012. Days before Tickner’s death in 2015 he gave his house and money to relatives even though he had made Leonora the main beneficiary of his will in 2014

It’s one of many touching memories that Leonora — a merry-hearted woman who laughs easily — takes comfort in. However, like every aspect of her relationship with wealthy former banker Harold Tickner, it has come under the harshest of spotlights since the old man’s death in 2015.

Leonora Da Costa, 50, is the cleaner who last week achieved a thumping, David-versus-Goliath court victory when a judge effectively gave her the go-ahead to pursue a claim on Mr Tickner’s £500,000 home.

Harold had left most of his estate — including the house in Cambridge Road, Harrow — to Leonora in a will he made in 2014. But, just two weeks before his death from colon cancer, he made another will, disinheriting Leonora and leaving his financial assets of £15,000 to his daughter, Karen.

His home he gifted in a separate letter — signed the same day — to his nephew, retired criminal barrister Dennis Germain. Mr Germain witnessed the will with his wife, Jadwiga. She was the sole witness of the gift deed being executed.

Last Monday, High Court Judge William Henderson ruled that Mr Tickner did not have the mental capacity to know what he was doing when he made that will just 16 days before his death in June 2015. Instead, the judge declared that there was ‘no real doubt as to the validity’ of the 2014 will.

Inevitably, the fallout has been explosive. Where there’s a will, there’s very often a war.

When I meet Leonora at the modest offices of her solicitors, Lincoln Harford, in Wembley, they are understandably cock-a-hoop after a four-year battle.

Leonora, 50, and her husband Eduardo, 53, who live in a simple three-bedroom house in Northwood Hills, Middlesex, would have faced financial ruin had they lost.

‘We are thrilled for Leonora,’ explains her solicitor Zaheer Khan. ‘If the deceased lacks testamentary facility for the will, then the argument is very clear — it should be the same for the legal letter. We do not expect much opposition from Mr Germain.’

However, Leonora’s mood is much more subdued. ‘All I wanted was to honour Mr Tickner’s wishes,’ she says. ‘He was very independent-minded and would have been furious to see all this. I did what anyone with a conscience would.’

Just two weeks before his death from colon cancer, he made another will, disinheriting Leonora and leaving his financial assets of £15,000 to his daughter, Karen

Dennis Richard Germain outside High Court during hearing in dispute over estate of his uncle, Harold Tickner

Just two weeks before his death from colon cancer, he made another will, disinheriting Leonora and leaving his financial assets of £15,000 to his daughter, Karen (left) and uncle Harold (right) 

It was 25 years ago that Leonora’s path first crossed with Mr Tickner’s (she shies away from calling him Harold out of old‑fashioned respect.)

Her husband, a landscape gardener, tended Mr Tickner’s garden on a weekly basis. Then, in 2008, when Mr Tickner’s wife, Ursula, started showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, he asked Eduardo if Leonora would clean for him three hours a week for £10 an hour. Mr Tickner, who was born in Cologne, Germany, but was sent to a boarding school in England and later fought with the British Army against the Nazis, was pin-sharp but losing his sight.

He proved a tough boss. As a busy working mother (Leonora is mum to Sofia and Tiago, 23), she would sometimes arrive a few minutes late.

Mr Tickner, who spent most of his career working for Lloyds Bank after a brief stint as a waiter at the Savoy, would be waiting at the door, watch in hand. ‘Young lady, it is better to be an hour early than a minute late,’ he snapped.

However, Leonora, who still speaks with a slight Portuguese accent, exudes such warmth and kindness, she soon won him round. In turn, Mr Tickner’s stern exterior — which reminded her of the father she had lost to cancer when she was 32 — helped Leonora warm to him.

‘The house was a total mess,’ says Leonora. ‘Mrs Tickner was a hoarder — there were cupboards stuffed with ancient newspapers. Poor Mr Tickner was run ragged caring for his wife but too proud to ask for help.’

Little by little, she increased her duties — always, she stresses, from a desire to help, and at his request: ‘Anyone seeing the muddle they were in would have done the same.’

The house in Cambridge Road, Harrow, where Harold Tickner lived and which was at the centre of a dispute over his fortune

The house in Cambridge Road, Harrow, where Harold Tickner lived and which was at the centre of a dispute over his fortune

‘He would sleep in the same sheets for weeks because he didn’t have the strength to change them and wouldn’t let me do it. Finally, I ripped them off and took them to my house to launder. He was losing his sight so I helped him shave. I would tease him and call him Father Christmas when his stubble got too bad.

‘Their diet was terrible: they lived off frozen ready meals. I started inviting them to my house for lunch. Afterwards, we would sit in the garden sipping coffee, listening to the birdsong. It was heavenly.’

Leonora was aware that her boss had a daughter, Karen, 67, living in Germany, and a nephew in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, but suspected the family wasn’t close.

‘Karen was supposed to come for three weeks one year, and the visit was so difficult — with constant rows — that Mr Tickner asked her to leave after a few days because his wife was getting so upset. He didn’t seem close to his nephew, either.’

In around 2010, Mr Tickner offered Leonora £300 a week to work full time. Her duties included racing around in the middle of the night to help his confused wife back into bed.

Ursula died in May 2012 aged 91. Leonora helped with the funeral arrangements, even choosing Mrs Tickner’s dress.

Following his wife’s death, Mr Tickner — who by now was registered blind — leaned even more heavily on Leonora. At his favourite Italian restaurant, Leonora would cut up his food, and on Saturdays, while Leonora did chores, Sofia and Mr Tickner enjoyed pancakes.

 Karen was supposed to come for three weeks one year, and the visit was so difficult — with constant rows — that Mr Tickner asked her to leave after a few days because his wife was getting so upset. He didn’t seem close to his nephew, either

So it was perhaps inevitable that when, over the course of many months, he learned that the little girl was being bullied at school, he suggested a change.

‘We had planned to move her to a different state school,’ explains Leonora. ‘But Mr Tickner realised the schools are only streets apart and convinced me that she would still be victimised. He insisted we send Sofia to the private school his daughter had attended. He said he would pay and wouldn’t take no for an answer.’

By anyone’s standards, it was an exceptionally generous offer; by many standards, it may also look slightly suspect.

Leonora insists Mr Tickner would not be dissuaded. ‘He wanted to use his money to change a life, and said this was his chance,’ she recalls. ‘He asked Sofia to use her education to try to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. She has been accepted at medical school so both his wishes could come true.’

Sofia started at Northwood College for Girls, in Middlesex, in September 2013, funded by a £45,000 gift from Mr Tickner (he also advised her parents how to invest the money to increase its value.)

Meanwhile, relations with Mr Tickner’s family remained slightly strained — partly, Leonora suspects, from jealousy of her growing closeness to the old man.

At Christmas 2013, Mr Tickner rejected an invitation to spend the festive period with Mr Germain at his luxurious home, complete with swimming pool, in favour of being with Leonora in her decidedly more modest terraced home.

‘I begged him to go, but he told me he hardly knew his family and would rather be with me, where he felt comfortable,’ she says.

Then on December 26, 2014 — having again spent Christmas Day with her family — Mr Tickner rang Leonora. He had been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer.

‘I rushed straight over, gave him a huge hug and promised that whatever happened, I would be there for him,’ recalls Leonora. ‘I was so upset I was crying, too. By now, I had come to love him as a father.’

But Mr Tickner didn’t just want to tell Leonora about his diagnosis. ‘He handed me an envelope and told me his will was inside and that he was leaving me his house,’ she recalls. ‘I was so upset about the cancer I didn’t really take it in.’

In fact, Mr Tickner had made the will in January 2014.

 I rushed straight over, gave him a huge hug and promised that whatever happened, I would be there for him,’ recalls Leonora. ‘I was so upset I was crying, too. By now, I had come to love him as a father.

Notes the solicitor made at the time — and which were presented to Judge William Henderson — make it clear that Mr Tickner had intended to leave his daughter and nephew out of the will altogether. Irritated when the solicitor counselled that doing so would leave the will open to dispute, he gave them £25,000 each. The notes also show that Mr Tickner believed his nephew had been trying to ‘brainwash’ him into leaving his estate to the family. Harold also explained that, as he had bought a large home for his daughter in Germany years earlier, he felt he had discharged his duty.

Leonora attended medical appointments with Mr Tickner, and even offered him a bedroom in her house. Mr Tickner was never to live with the Da Costas. With his health deteriorating, in April 2015, he was admitted to hospital. Leonora visited at least twice a week.

Karen flew over from Germany and Dennis Germain also visited.

Tactfully, Leonora kept her distance, allowing the family time together. But when Mr Tickner was transferred to a nursing home on May 10 for his last weeks, she says she felt deliberately frozen out.

In court, Mr Germain’s team argued that Leonora failed to visit — explaining Mr Tickner’s last-minute decision to change the will in his favour. Leonora insists she visited as soon as the family told her where he was.

Three days later, Mr Germain and his Polish-born wife, Jadwiga, were witnesses to Mr Tickner signing a new will leaving his financial assets to his daughter. The house was bequeathed to Mr Germain in a separate document — allowing the nephew to be a witness to the will.

Suffering from flu, Leonora had to delay seeing Mr Tickner again. On her final visit with Sofia, no mention was made of the new will. ‘He was too weak to talk,’ she says. ‘I asked him to open his eyes if he knew I was there, and he did.’

Two days later, on June 29, 2015, Harold Tickner died. He was 91.

The funeral was on the day she was visiting Portugal. ‘I could have cancelled, but it was clear his family didn’t want me there,’ says Leonora. ‘So instead, I went to a Catholic mass in Portugal.’

Leonora returned from holiday to find a letter from Mr Germain demanding a full account of any gifts Mr Tickner had made her.

Worried, Leonora rang Mr Tickner’s solicitors and they delivered the bombshell news about the new will — and advised her to find a solicitor urgently.

‘In Portugal there’s a saying that a small dog can’t fight a big dog,’ she says. ‘But I had every faith in the British legal system.’

However, in Dennis Germain, an eminent retired barrister, she had a determined opponent.

When approached by the Mail, Mr Germain said: ‘I find Mrs Da Costa’s allegations deeply upsetting and, for the most part, they are totally untrue. It is true that my uncle was very ill when he changed his will. He was, in fact, dying from colon cancer, although neither his daughter nor I were aware of that at the time.

Mrs Tickner was a hoarder — there were cupboards stuffed with ancient newspapers. Poor Mr Tickner was run ragged caring for his wife but too proud to ask for help.

‘Far from being ‘kept away from the hospital’, Mrs Da Costa gave evidence that she visited my uncle every day for the three weeks he was at Northwick Park Hospital but only visited him occasionally after he was transferred to Central Middlesex Hospital because she felt ‘nervous’ about driving there.

‘The sole issue for the trial judge was my uncle’s testamentary capacity at the time he changed his will. Two experts on old age psychiatry gave evidence at the trial and the judge accepted, as he was entitled to, the evidence of the expert employed by Mrs Da Costa. In those circumstances, I do not intend to appeal his decision.’

Today, while the Da Costas claim they were never tempted to cave in, the toll has been immense. ‘I’m too exhausted to celebrate,’ says Leonora. ‘I just feel relieved knowing I’ve done my best by Mr Tickner.

‘He had a right to dispose of his assets as he chose. He wanted my family to have his house and treasure it, and we will move in as soon as we can. I take flowers to his grave every two weeks. Now I will be going with a happier heart.’

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