March 26, 2023

A tragic family story has emerged from a High Court trust case where a judge had to decide if a long-lost sibling was entitled to part of a $3.5 million family fortune. MARTIN VAN BEYNEN reports.
It wasn’t until Ray Moody was planning his wedding in 1971 that he discovered a well-kept family secret.
Maurice Moody, whom Ray had always thought of as his father, told him he was in fact his uncle. He wanted to make sure Ray used his correct birth surname (McLean) on his marriage certificate.
Although Maurice did not provide any more details, Ray would 10 years later learn through friends of his wife’s family that his birth mother was Rona Cooper, and he had a full brother called Rob, born about a year before him.
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Rona had Rob and Ray in 1949 and 1950 respectively, but when her husband abandoned the family, she could not afford to keep them, there being no welfare benefit for single mothers at the time.
Rob went to Rona’s mother, and Ray went to Rona’s aunt Edna, who was married to Maurice. Ray would be brought up as their child, although he was never adopted or made their legal charge. Edna died before Ray was married.
In 1958, Rona married Christchurch businessman Mervyn Cooper, and had two girls with him called Lilly and Miffy.
When Rob was 10, he returned to live with Mervyn and Rona, but Rona never told her children about Ray, who continued to live with her aunt.
By 1992, Rob and Ray knew of each other’s existence but had not met, with both showing ambivalence at various times.
However, that was all to change one night in a Japanese restaurant in Christchurch, when they were seated opposite each other and their wives noticed the resemblance.
They exchanged details and for the next 20 years, Ray and Rob had a warm relationship until a falling-out between the two on a canal boat holiday in France in 2010.
Rona was in her early 60s when the brothers got to know each other, and was shocked to learn about their meeting.
At her request, she met Ray in 1993 and their relationship blossomed. They lived close to each other and both had holiday homes in Akaroa.
Ray did not enjoy the same warm relationship with Rona’s husband Mervyn, but for the period when the brothers were on good terms, Ray and his family were included in family events such as Christmas gatherings.
Rona died in February 2013 and in her will left all her children, including Ray, $50,000 each.
In a letter to Ray, Rona told him she had done what she thought was best for her baby when she sent him to live with her aunt.
“I will not mention the pain and tears still come at times, but you have grown into a fine man and even though I cannot take credit for bringing you up, I am proud of you,” she wrote.
“I would ask that you be compatible with the family and content with the money I have left you. I am sure you will be.”
Mervyn, who died in March 2020, and Rona had done well in business. By 2008, a family trust had assets of about $3.5 million after the sale of the Kauri Lodge Retirement Village in Riccarton, Christchurch.
The wording of the trust made “the children” of Mervyn and Rona discretionary beneficiaries. The trustees needed to know whether “children” included Rob and Ray, and went to the High Court in Christchurch for a declaration, with lawyers arguing the case for the different definitions.
In a judgment released this week, Justice Dunningham ruled the wording included Mervyn’s and Rona’s family unit, as the principal purpose of the trust was to benefit the people for whom the couple had a “natural love and affection”.
Ray was however outside the family unit, she said.
Mervyn very much saw Rob as his natural son, but did not have a close relationship with Ray, who was brought up by another family.
“This conclusion has the inevitable and, no doubt, disappointing, result that Ray is not a beneficiary of the trust deed,” the judge said.
“While he was reunited with his birth mother, and formed a rewarding and happy relationship with her and with members of his extended family, that does not alter the fact that at the time the trust deed was entered into, a reasonable person would distinguish between Ray, who was not brought up as the child of Merv and Rona, and the three children who were.”
A family friend said Rob and Ray were very similar and successful in business. Rob owned the Home Ideas Centre and Ray owned the Parklands supermarket. Both retired in their 50s.
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