Cleaner wins bitter legal battle for £500k inheritance from family of deceased

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Ask Sofia Da Costa what she remembers of the man who was her mother's boss for 11 years and she has just one word: 'Pancakes.'

As a little girl, Sofia — now 17 and hoping to start a medical degree in September — spent Saturday mornings perched in Harold Tickner's kitchen, tucking into piles of pancakes, while her mother Leonora pottered around with a duster.

'It was a treat which became a tradition,' smiles Leonora, 50. 'It started when Mr Tickner asked me to make pancakes. I was brought up in Portugal where we don't eat them, so I didn't have a clue. But Sofia had been learning how to make pancakes at school that week. So she came around and cooked them.

'Mr Tickner was thrilled. They sat there, maple syrup dripping onto their plates, chatting and laughing. It was just lovely.

'He was such a wise, kind gentleman. He had so much to teach Sofia and, like most elderly people, he loved being around children.'

The carer: Leonora Da Costa looked after Harold Tickner after the death of his wife in 2012. Days before Tickner's death in 2015 he gave his house and money to relatives even though he had made Leonora the main beneficiary of his will in 2014

The carer: Leonora Da Costa looked after Harold Tickner after the death of his wife in 2012. Days before Tickner's death in 2015 he gave his house and money to relatives even though he had made Leonora the main beneficiary of his will in 2014

It's one of many touching memories that Leonora — a merry-hearted woman who laughs easily — takes comfort in. However, like every aspect of her relationship with wealthy former banker Harold Tickner, it has come under the harshest of spotlights since the old man's death in 2015.

Leonora Da Costa, 50, is the cleaner who last week achieved a thumping, David-versus-Goliath court victory when a judge effectively gave her the go-ahead to pursue a claim on Mr Tickner's £500,000 home.

Harold had left most of his estate — including the house in Cambridge Road, Harrow — to Leonora in a will he made in 2014. But, just two weeks before his death from colon cancer, he made another will, disinheriting Leonora and leaving his financial assets of £15,000 to his daughter, Karen.

His home he gifted in a separate letter — signed the same day — to his nephew, retired criminal barrister Dennis Germain. Mr Germain witnessed the will with his wife, Jadwiga. She was the sole witness of the gift deed being executed.

Last Monday, High Court Judge William Henderson ruled that Mr Tickner did not have the mental capacity to know what he was doing when he made that will just 16 days before his death in June 2015. Instead, the judge declared that there was 'no real doubt as to the validity' of the 2014 will.

Inevitably, the fallout has been explosive. Where there's a will, there's very often a war.

When I meet Leonora at the modest offices of her solicitors, Lincoln Harford, in Wembley, they are understandably cock-a-hoop after a four-year battle.

Leonora, 50, and her husband Eduardo, 53, who live in a simple three-bedroom house in Northwood Hills, Middlesex, would have faced financial ruin had they lost.

'We are thrilled for Leonora,' explains her solicitor Zaheer Khan. 'If the deceased lacks testamentary facility for the will, then the argument is very clear — it should be the same for the legal letter. We do not expect much opposition from Mr Germain.'

However, Leonora's mood is much more subdued. 'All I wanted was to honour Mr Tickner's wishes,' she says. 'He was very independent-minded and would have been furious to see all this. I did what anyone with a conscience would.'

Just two weeks before his death from colon cancer, he made another will, disinheriting Leonora and leaving his financial assets of £15,000 to his daughter, Karen

Dennis Richard Germain outside High Court during hearing in dispute over estate of his uncle, Harold Tickner

Just two weeks before his death from colon cancer, he made another will, disinheriting Leonora and leaving his financial assets of £15,000 to his daughter, Karen (left) and uncle Harold (right) 

It was 25 years ago that Leonora's path first crossed with Mr Tickner's (she shies away from calling him Harold out of old‑fashioned respect.)

Her husband, a landscape gardener, tended Mr Tickner's garden on a weekly basis. Then, in 2008, when Mr Tickner's wife, Ursula, started showing signs of Alzheimer's disease, he asked Eduardo if Leonora would clean for him three hours a week for £10 an hour. Mr Tickner, who was born in Cologne, Germany, but was sent to a boarding school in England and later fought with the British Army against the Nazis, was pin-sharp but losing his sight.

He proved a tough boss. As a busy working mother (Leonora is mum to Sofia and Tiago, 23), she would sometimes arrive a few minutes late.

Mr Tickner, who spent most of his career working for Lloyds Bank after a brief stint as a waiter at the Savoy, would be waiting at the door, watch in hand. 'Young lady, it is better to be an hour early than a minute late,' he snapped.

However, Leonora, who still speaks with a slight Portuguese accent, exudes such warmth and kindness, she soon won him round. In turn, Mr Tickner's stern exterior — which reminded her of the father she had lost to cancer when she was 32 — helped Leonora warm to him.

'The house was a total mess,' says Leonora. 'Mrs Tickner was a hoarder — there were cupboards stuffed with ancient newspapers. Poor Mr Tickner was run ragged caring for his wife but too proud to ask for help.'

Little by little, she increased her duties — always, she stresses, from a desire to help, and at his request: 'Anyone seeing the muddle they were in would have done the same.'

The house in Cambridge Road, Harrow, where Harold Tickner lived and which was at the centre of a dispute over his fortune

The house in Cambridge Road, Harrow, where Harold Tickner lived and which was at the centre of a dispute over his fortune

'He would sleep in the same sheets for weeks because he didn't have the strength to change them and wouldn't let me do it. Finally, I ripped them off and took them to my house to launder. He was losing his sight so I helped him shave. I would tease him and call him Father Christmas when his stubble got too bad.

'Their diet was terrible: they lived off frozen ready meals. I started inviting them to my house for lunch. Afterwards, we would sit in the garden sipping coffee, listening to the birdsong. It was heavenly.'

Leonora was aware that her boss had a daughter, Karen, 67, living in Germany, and a nephew in Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, but suspected the family wasn't close.

'Karen was supposed to come for three weeks one year, and the visit was so difficult — with constant rows — that Mr Tickner asked her to leave after a few days because his wife was getting so upset. He didn't seem close to his nephew, either.'

In around 2010, Mr Tickner offered Leonora £300 a week to work full time. Her duties included racing around in the middle of the night to help his confused wife back into bed.

Ursula died in May 2012 aged 91. Leonora helped with the funeral arrangements, even choosing Mrs Tickner's dress.

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