LIKE an endless family drama stretched over decades and generations, the bitter Vermeulen feud has dominated the lives of its members. Now the highest court has ruled: the family matriarch, the ‘Iron Lady of Outjo’, was not legally capable when she made a contentious second will.
Anyone with even a reading knowledge of legal fiction knows that you can do what you like with your estate and that some very strange bequests have been upheld by the courts.
However, if there’s good enough evidence that you weren’t ‘in your right mind’ at the time you signed there might be a chance of contesting the will.
And that’s exactly what happened in this case though it took many years of litigation to finalise.
At the heart of the story stands Fransina Catharine Vermeulen, with a personal history that reads like a novel. During the dispute over her will one of her sons established a Facebook page for Chaudamas, the 5000 ha family farm central to the family dispute. He noted that she had been part of the Angolan Dorsland Trek, and that she had married Gabriel Jacobus Vermeulen on her 18th birthday.
Together they had five children, four sons and a daughter, and became prosperous farmers with a number of properties, large lands and herds. All the evidence before court – first the high court and then the supreme court of Namibia – creates the impression of a formidable woman. When they called her the ‘Iron Lady of Outja’ they had good reason.
A competent vehicle mechanic, a mean shot with a hunting rifle, a fabulous cook and a botanist, she was fiercely independent and had a reputation for speaking her mind with force and honesty. But she was also a dedicated family person who drove her grandchildren into Otjiwarongo every Monday and collected them again from school on Friday afternoons.
She and her husband made a point of treating their children fairly and equally. In 1970 when they made a joint will they stipulated that, should they die together, their entire estate should be divided equally among the surviving children. After old man Vermeulen died Francina, who inherited everything from him, made a new will. That 1994 will gave each child a large share of the estate, leaving the family farm Chaudamas to the oldest son Fredrick Antonie (Frikkie) and her seaside home to her only daughter Engela. The rest of the estate was divided into virtually equal shares.
Unknown to the rest of the family however she made another will in 2000. On the day she signed it she visited her lawyer with Gawie, one of her sons who was living with her at the time. In terms of that will Gawie inherited everything. Far from getting the family farm Frikkie would now inherit just a single rifle.
The discovery of this will sparked a lengthy legal battle, with Frikkie and Engela on one side and the rest of the family – including Gawie and three grandsons all called Gabriel Jacobus Vermeulen – on the other.
From there on the story becomes pitiful. While everyone agreed that she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease the dispute centred on what symptoms she showed and when. This was in order to establish how far the disease had progressed at the time she signed the 2000 will.
Page after page of the supreme court judgment examines the sometimes conflicting evidence from family members and others about the exact date that she knocked into a donkey with her vehicle, when she put petrol instead of diesel into the tank, when she forgot how to bake a cake, when her garden – once a tourist attraction in the district – became noticeably unkempt. What was the date of the ‘bathing’ incident, when she climbed into the bath and immediately got out again without washing? When was she seen to be wearing four pairs of panties? Who sniffed the long unemptied potty under her bed and what was the date?
It’s a heartbreaking chronicle showing the degeneration of this once independent strong woman and the divisions caused within her family.
At the end of it all however the court concluded the 2000 will was invalid, as there was enough evidence to show she signed the disputed will when she ‘lacked testamentary capacity’.
As for the legal costs, the court held the sons and grandsons who lost the case must find the funds. It won’t be a small bill and you can almost taste the bitterness swirling on into the next generation.