The will of late rich-lister Hugh Green has been declared invalid by the High Court in a major victory for his eldest daughter in a fight for control of his $400 million empire.
Green died, aged 80, in 2012 and had been awarded a Queen's Service Medal for services to philanthropy six months before he passed away.
The empire he built over decades included the Hugh Green Group, a family-owned property company, and the Hugh Green Foundation, a charitable organisation that supports causes such as medical research or individuals living with disabilities or serious illness.
The philanthropist's eldest daughter, Maryanne, had been chief executive of the Green Group but she left the business in the 12 months before her father died.
Hugh Green's final will dated April 2012 - signed months before he died - added two of his five children, John and Frances Green, and lawyer Michael Fisher as executors.
This small change had a big impact as the executors have power of appointment for the trusts that control the entire Green Group.
The year after her father's death Maryanne brought action in the High Court at Auckland challenging the validity of the new will.
She also challenged her father appointing John, Frances and Fisher to Green Group trusts and as directors of Group companies while removing her from both of these positions.
She argued he did not have the capacity to understand the effects and implications of these moves and that his exercise of power was caused by the undue influence of John and/or Fisher.
QC Harry Waalkens said the decision would be appealed. Speaking on behalf of Hugh Green's wife Moira and children Frances, John, Gerard and Eamonn he said they felt "bound to fight to see their father's wishes respected".
In a 197-page decision released publicly today, Justice Helen Winkelmann ruled that Hugh was subject to undue influence when he executed his final will.
"It follows that the will is invalid," the judge said.
Justice Winkelmann said Maryanne failed to establish that her father lacked capacity when exercising powers to appoint John, Frances and Fisher as trustees or directors and removing her.
But the judge found that when Hugh removed Maryanne as a trustee and voted to remove her as a director he was subject to undue influence by his son John "such that he was not exercising his own free will when exercising those powers and making those decisions".
This was also the case when Hugh appointed Fisher as a trustee and voted to appoint him as a director, she said.
The judge also said that resolutions by three trusts appointing John and Frances as directors were not validly passed.
"I have also held that grounds are made out for the removal of John and Frances as trustees on the grounds that the level of hostility they feel and exhibit toward Maryanne and [her daughter] Alice is sufficient to undermine the execution of the trusts for the benefit of all beneficiaries," Justice Winkelmann said.
The practical effect of these findings are expected to be known when Justice Winkelmann releases a set of orders that were discussed in the High Court at Auckland this week.