Spanish court strips diocese of $40 million inheritance

A Spanish court has ordered an archdiocese in northern Spain to hand over a $A40 million inheritance from two rich, childless widows to two distant relatives including a British stepson of a cousin whom the women had never met.

The British Guardian reports that the widows, Carmen Gmez del Peral and her sister, Mara Luisa, left their estate to the Archdiocese of Valladolid, about 192 kilometres north of Madrid, in a will dated November 1994.

Church officials say that the money was to be used to help the poor and hold Masses in their honour.

But after their deaths in 1999, two distant relatives including the British stepson of a cousin contested the will.

Last week a Spanish provincial court ruled that the archdiocese would have to return the fortune plus interest and court fees to the distant relatives, El Mundo newspaper reported on Sunday. The paper named the British beneficiary as Peter Claud Kirman Catarinella.

The diocese has appealed the case to the Spanish supreme court.

"Other judicial decisions say the will of the deceased always prevails," the diocese's financial officer, Jos Mara Conde, told El Mundo. "How could Carmen's intention have been to leave it all to an Englishman whom she never met in her life?"

Conde said the church has used the $A40 million in assets and properties strictly as stipulated in the notarised 1994 will to support the church-run Pia Foundation, which provides money for charities such as Caritas, projects in the developing world, and church seminaries. Carmen Gmez de Peral also wanted the money used "to hold masses for her, for her soul," he said.

But the Valladolid provincial court based its decision on the appearance of a second, hand-written testament dated two years later than the original, when the women were about 90 years old. In it, each sister left her share to the other, should one of them die first. It included some spelling and composition errors.

"I Carmen Gmez del Peral," the note read, "if something happens to me in an accident in which I lose my life, leave to my only sister, Mara Luisa, all my goods to my only sister may she do with them what she wishes."

Carmen died in July 1999 and Mara Luisa died three months later. The court said the document effectively voided the first will and left the women without a stated heir. Under Spanish law, the after-tax estate goes to the nearest relative. The sisters apparently did not have anybody closer than the two litigants.

Photo: Archbishop D. Braulio Rodríguez Plaza of Valladolid

Distant relatives win £16m bequeathed by widows to church (Guardian, 16/10/06)

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Archdiocese of Valladolid

18 Oct 2006