Millionaire goes to court after partner leaves $2m estate to son

File photo: Getty Images
File photo: Getty Images
A professional woman with a net worth in the millions felt she hadn’t been provided for adequately after her partner died and left his entire $2 million estate to his son – so she went to court to fight for a share.

However, Karen Christiansen’s attempt to claim some of her late partner Christopher Dodd’s estate has now failed, leaving her without a share and a tattered relationship with her de facto stepson.

Last month, the Family Court dismissed Christiansen’s claim, having found no breach of moral duty.

Dodd died unexpectedly in October 2019 aged 55, leaving Christiansen, with whom he’d been in a relationship for about seven years, and Mitchell Dodd, an only child from a previous marriage.

The couple were described as being financially sound and enjoying a good life together. Christiansen said they had plans to retire comfortably to a dream coastal location.

She lodged the claim against Dodd’s estate in the year after his death, saying he had breached his duty to make adequate provision for her.

The application under the Family Protection Act was based on her claim that the terms of a shared property agreement "did not reflect the parties’ intentions if their relationship ended on death. Nor did Chris’s last will".

Judge Andrea Manuel said there were several difficulties with this narrative, in that it was "insufficiently coherent or cohesive" and it was "no surprise" the relationship between her and her de facto stepson broke down.

She dismissed the claim for several reasons, including details outlined in the shared property agreement, Dodd’s wishes in his last will and Christiansen’s net worth of about $2m, which indicated she was "not badly off".

The court noted that Christiansen did not challenge the agreement but made a claim under the Family Protection Act against Dodd’s estate, which was about equal to the net value of her own estate.

Judge Manuel said the issue for the court was to establish whether approximately $2m was adequate provision for her and, if not, how much Dodd should have left her.

Christiansen and Dodd met in 2012 when in their late 40s and at a time when each was financially comfortable. Dodd died about 2½ years after a property agreement was made in 2017, setting out what was to happen if their relationship ended in separation or death.

The property agreement had clauses providing for the replacement and intermingling of their separate property. It also contained specific clauses providing for death, including that Christiansen acknowledged it was her partner’s wish that, on his death, his estate would pass in its entirety to the beneficiaries under his last will.

It said that, unless Christiansen was specifically provided for, she would have no claim against his estate and agreed not to lodge any claims.

Dodd’s last will directed that, after debts, funeral and testamentary expenses and any duties, the residue of his estate was to be given to his son.

Judge Manuel described the will as "simple but effective".

Christiansen was in a high-earning profession and also owned assets. She was a qualified chartered accountant and worked as an international flight attendant for about five years from her late 20s.

She and Dodd bought property together and aimed eventually to pool their assets in retirement, Christiansen claimed.

Judge Manuel said it was apparent from her evidence that she was not only a qualified and experienced professional but an assertive, capable and confident person, who had worked in roles focused on money and finance and had managed to navigate her way successfully in the world as a single, independent person.

She also questioned multiple aspects of Christiansen’s argument and failed to find substance in the affidavits provided by three witnesses.

Judge Manuel found that the parties’ intentions if their relationship ended on death were, as at the date of Dodd’s death, as recorded in the property agreement.

There was no breach of moral duty towards Christiansen in Dodd’s last will for several reasons, including the intentions recorded in the agreement and the provisions of the will; the parties’ de facto relationship was a third or fourth qualifying relationship for Dodd and a second for Christiansen and, at 61 and in good health, with no dependents, a net worth of approximately $2m and a good income, Christiansen "is not badly off."

Christiansen declined NZME’s invitation to comment on the decision. Mitchell Dodd was not available for comment.

- Tracy Neal, Open Justice reporter