Woman acquitted of fraud as £84,000 inheritance money had been left to her cats
A judge has accepted a woman's claim that her £84,000 inheritance was all to be spent on her late mother's cats.
Marlene Howes, 67, insisted her mum Barbara Sutton had made it clear that the money she left was to be used to keep her 14 Persian cats as they always had been - in the lap of luxury.
And after examining Mrs Howes' bank accounts and spending records today, district judge Joti Bopa-Rai cleared her of acting dishonestly by claiming benefits after receiving the inheritance.
The judge hasd been told that Mrs Howes claimed about £22,000 in pension credits and council tax benefits that she was not entitled to over the period from 2005 to 2011.
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At Gloucester Magistrates court Mrs Howes, of Parkhill, Whitecroft, nr Lydney, Glos, was found not guilty of two charges of making false statements to obtain benefits by not declaring the true extent of her capital.
She was also acquitted of one charge of obtaining pension credits by deception from the Dept of Work and Pensions, and one of failing to notify a change of her circumstances to Forest of Dean district council so she could claim council tax benefit.
Mrs Howes, who has 25 Persian cats of her own, had told the court that her mum's prized show cats had always had the best of everything and she wanted that to continue after her death in Oct 2004.
"She wanted the money from the sale of her property to go to looking after her animals," Mrs Howes said.
"I agreed to take all her cats and take care of them on those conditions. She expressed it verbally to me but she did not put it in writing in her will."
Mrs Howes said she adopted all her mother's cats and brought them to live with her own twenty-five Persian cats.
She told the court she had received £136,000 from the sale of her late mother's house in Cranbrook rd, Bristol in 2005. But £52,000 of that had to be given to the son of her mother's partner, Ronald Sutton, who was also a beneficiary.
She then opened an account specifically for the cats and used the money from it to pay for all their food, litter, vets bills - and even a new conservatory on her house to give them more living space.
She told the court she did contact both the Dept of Work and Pensions and Forest of Dean district council to notify them of her potential bequest at about the time of her mother's death.
Asked by her solicitor Jon Holmes what the cost of keeping the cats was, she said "It was a lot of money. My mother always paid for the best food and so on. She would go daily to the supermarket or butcher and get them fresh food every day.
"At one time it was costing £180 a week - and then there's cat litter on top of that.
"I didn't regard it as my money at all. It was left by my mother specifically for the keeping of the animals. Everyone knows she absolutely adored those animals.
"I realise that it is me who is named on her will but I never gave that a thought, I just thought a dead person's wishes should be carried out."
The court heard evidence today from her daughter Juliet Howes, who had analysed her four bank accounts to provide a breakdown of how money was spent over the last seven years.
Ms Howes gave the court an example that in 2007 the total cost of the cats' upkeep was £14,000.
"That is what was specifically spent on the cats," she said. "Litter and food alone came to £5,400.
"My mum spent considerably less on herself.
"In 2008 the cats cost £20,000. That was the year the conservatory was put on at a cost of £4,600. The cats lived in it. It was extra space for them because there was not enough room there.
"She put in a conservatory because there was such a large number of cats. She only has a small garden."
In the seven years from 2005 to 2012, she said, her mother had spent a total of £94,000 on cats and received an income from the cats and from bank interest of £39,000.
"Her own personal outgoings over that period were £57,000 and her income was £61,000 - a lot of which was from insurance claims she had to make."
Tim Burrows, prosecuting, asked Ms Howes what her mother's lifestyle is like. Ms Howes said her mum 'spends hardly anything on herself' and uses charity shops a lot.
She also said that her mum now has just £25,000 left in one account and an overdraft on another.
In a statement Jean Tucker, Mrs Howes' aunt, from Bournemouth,, said she had a very close relationship with her sister, Barbara Sutton,
"My sister was a breeder and owner of top show winning Persian pedigree cats which were of the utmost importance to her," she stated,
Mrs Sutton had been concerned that her partner's son may claim the whole of the estate after her death leaving nothing for the care of the cats, she said.
On solicitor's advice, she stated, Mrs Sutton made Marlene the sole beneficiary of her estate on the understanding she would use it for the upkeep and care of the cats.
Janette Fazakarley, a neice of Mrs Sutton's, of Fishponds, Bristol, stated there had been a long standing agreement that Marlene would take care of the cats from the proceeds of her estate.
Colleen Lockier of Chepstow, a friend of the late Mrs Sutton's, said 'she made it perfectly clear on many occasions that she intended the proceeds of her estate to be entrusted to her daughter for the sole purpose of caring for her cats.'
And Norma Chappell, another friend, from Newport, Gwent, said "She insisted that she would provide sufficient money for the welfare and upkeep of her cats and her daughter would have care of them and sole responsibility for them for as long as they lived."
Giving her decision, Judge Bopa-Rai said she accepted that pedigree Persian cats need a lot of brushing, grooming, and 'constant
"We know Mrs Howes had some forty odd cats to look after. It is remarkable that anyone should look after such a large number.
"I have heard nothing other than that these cats are kept in the best environment and cared for properly. It is quite a commendation for her."
Judge Bopa-Rai said the bank schedule supplied by Juliette Howes showed that Mrs Howes was not living an extravaagent lifestyle and that the cats 'took up most of the money.'
"It is quite clear that the cats are taking a lot of money and will continue to do so and that soon the money is going to run out," said the judge.
"The statements I have heard show what the mother's wishes were about what was to happen to the money. It is quite clear her main concern was the care of those cats. Obviously they were precious to her and she obviously was very fond of those cats.
"Her main concern after her demise was that the cats would still be looked after properly and not got rid of. Even if they got old they would still be looked after."
Judge Bopa-Rai said that objectively Mrs Howes appeared to be guilty of dishonesty in the way she had failed to declare the money - but subjectively she was a credible witness.
"I do accept that in her mind what she did was not dishonest and that is the reason she did not declare the money. I find her not guilty of the charges and dismiss the case."
The judge granted a defendant's costs order to Mrs Howes.
Mrs Howes declined to comment as she left court.