Adopted kids at heart of family feud over millions

00:11, Jul 18 2012
HAPPIER TIMES: : Donald and Irma Murray, far left and far right, with newlyweds Nathan Murray and wife Michelle. Image from 1993.
HAPPIER TIMES: Donald and Irma Murray, far left and far right, with newlyweds Nathan Murray and wife Michelle. Image from 1993.

Details of a bitter family feud have emerged involving the disputed proceeds of a Levin farming couple's multimillion-dollar estate.

The case involves allegations of a vindictive personal vendetta, claims of alcoholism, lavish spending on unusual hobbies, and a mother's perceived prejudice against her adopted children.

"The biggest thing throughout this is how personal it got," estate recipient and Horowhenua district councillor Nathan Murray said.

"People sink to all sorts of depths when it comes to getting their hands on money."

The bad blood within the extended family - which includes millionaire Fisher Funds managing director Carmel Fisher - is revealed in a Court of Appeal decision into the estate of Mr Murray's 79-year-old mother, Irma Murray.

She co-owned Papaitonga farm with her late husband, Donald. But when she died in 2009, Irma left almost her entire $3.7 million estate to two nieces and a nephew - Ms Fisher and her brother and sister - while her own three children received virtually nothing.


The High Court later ruled that Irma had breached her moral duty to her children - Nathan Murray, Melissa Murray, and John Birch - and dramatically increased their cut.

However, Ms Fisher and her siblings, Peter and Melanie Wakem - collectively referred to as the "Wakem children" - appealed and tried unsuccessfully to reduce their cousins' windfall.

They argued that Irma's children had fallen out with their parents and that they - the Wakem children - were the intended recipients of Irma's assets.

Judges said the emotive case sparked vindictive personal attacks.

Nathan told the court his mother had a serious drinking problem. He claimed she was prejudiced against him and Melissa because they were adopted and said Irma favoured their cousins as being "real blood".

The court later heard Irma was a "cold and dispassionate mother" who would "berate and criticise" her children for the slightest misdemeanour.

"Irma always had an issue with the fact that Nathan and Melissa were adopted," the Court of Appeal decision says.

The Wakem children blamed the farm's sizeable debts on Nathan's mismanagement and "inadequacy as a farmer". They also alleged lavish spending by him and his wife Michelle.

A judge rejected the allegations. But the court heard Nathan was "not the world's greatest farmer". and had a weakness for expensive and unusual hobbies like hot air ballooning. That stemmed from his father - "albeit not by blood" - who once built a hippodrome to race chariots.

In her will, Irma left $60,000 to Melissa and $50,000 to her estranged son John - a beneficiary living in Australia.

Nathan received nothing, though a small amount was set aside for his children.

The High Court said Irma's meagre bequests were a serious breach of moral duty to her children, and increased the trio's share to $700,000, $450,000 and $600,000 respectively.

At a hearing last month, the Wakem children challenged that ruling. They argued the awards were "too high and amounted to a rewriting of Irma's will".

However, the appeal judges ruled a parent's duty to children outweighed that to nieces and nephews.

"The assertion by the Wakem children that Irma had a moral duty to them is weak when contrasted to the duty she owed her children."

Nathan Murray said yesterday that the court process had ripped his family apart. It was "extraordinary" that his wealthy cousin had challenged the amount allocated to Irma's own children.

"I'm just a bloody dirt farmer in Horowhenua. It's been very arduous. I don't think it's a business decision, I think it's personal. It really does seem to be a personal vendetta against me, my brother and sister, and they won't stop."

The only winners were lawyers, he said. "They've had a great time. But for the rest of us it's very sad."

Ms Fisher rejected the allegations last night. She said there was nothing vindictive, and she and her two siblings had simply been defending an entitlement in their aunt's will.

"My aunt wrote a will. Her children challenged that and I simply defended her wishes and will as any trustee would do . . . My wealth has absolutely nothing to do with it."


Hammond and Millie Murray: Hammond inherited the Murray family farm and left it to their daughter Wanda upon his death in 1962. At that time, Hammond was estranged from son Donald.

Donald Murray (died 1994): Married Irma in 1963. Successfully challenged farm ownership arrangement through court soon after his father's death and later became majority owner. Lived on farm with Irma till his death. His estate was valued at $2.47 million.

Irma Murray (died 2009): Married to Donald. Lived on farm until her death. Had personal assets totalling $3.7m. Bequeathed virtually everything to her two nieces and nephew, and almost nothing to her own three children.

John Birch: Son of Irma from previous marriage. A beneficiary living in remote northern Australia, and estranged from his parents. Left $50,000 in Irma's will.

Nathan Murray: Adopted son of Irma and Donald. Runs the family farm at Levin. Married to Michelle. Estranged from Irma. Inherited half the farm in Donald's will with generous options to acquire other half. Left nothing in Irma's will.

Melissa Murray: Adopted daughter of Irma and Donald. Returned to the farm from Australia to help Irma in her twilight years. Married to Peter Kirby. Inherited one-eighth share of farm in Donald's will. Left $60,000 in Irma's will.

Wanda Wakem (died in 1994): Donald's sister. Inherited farm from her father Hammond. Donald and Millie then took court action against Wanda. Donald later acquired majority share under "generous" terms.

Carmel Fisher, born Wakem: Daughter of Wanda and niece of Irma. Managing director of Fisher Funds.

Peter Wakem: Son of Wanda and nephew of Irma.

Melanie Wakem: Daughter of Wanda and niece of Irma.

The three "Wakem children" (along with a fourth nephew, Gregory, who took no part in proceedings) inherited three-eighths of family farm in Donald's will. They also received virtually all of Irma's $3.7m estate.

The Dominion Post