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Businessman’s death sparks court battle between his wife and Chinese mother over $30million estate

A $30million estate left by a businessman who died without a will has sparked a bitter feud between his Chinese mother and his Adelaide family that has reached South Australia’s highest court.

Under South Australian probate laws, if a person dies intestate and they leave more than $100,000 behind, their spouse and children get everything.

When businessman Hongtao Liu died in November 2018, he left a $30million fortune, a wife and two children in Adelaide, and a 76-year-old mother in China who says he promised to support her for the rest of her life. 

A former director of Australian Group Investments, Mr Liu had a sprawling network of business interests including luxury properties in Adelaide, a real estate company, a catering business, a financial management firm and the Super Star Australia and Young Stars talent agencies.

Mr Liu owned two luxury properties on either side of St Peter’s Billabong, a wetlands nature reserve in the heart of Adelaide. 

One of them, a $3.5million home on Harrow Rd, St Peters, was designed by award-winning architect Max Pritchard and had its own bar-pool room and a 17m solar-heated pool. 

While the bulk of Mr Liu’s assets were in Australia, a significant portion including a power supply firm that loaned money to related entities were in China.

Mr Liu’s wife Xiangting Kong, the mother of his two children Daniel, 14, and Shirley, 12, was granted control of her late husbands assets as administrator in February 2019, according to a Supreme Court of South Australia pre-trial judgement.      

Six months later, however, Mr Liu’s mother Junying Yan sued for control.

Ms Yan says she is an impoverished former factory worker with a limited education.

Her son had supported her, paying her $30,000 a year on which she lived, which he later increased to $40,000 a year.

Chinese courts have different intestacy laws to Australia, and under the Chinese system, Ms Yan says she is entitled to some of her son’s assets. 

Junying Yan is now suing her own daughter-in-law, Xiangting Kong, and her grandchildren  for control of his multinational portfolio worth millions.    

In Australia the case has reached the South Australian Supreme Court, however Ms Yan also has lodged four separate proceedings in the Chinese courts.

The Supreme Court pre-trial judgement says there appears to be ‘common ground’ that Junying Yan is entitled to $1.25 million worth of her son’s overseas assets in the form of ‘immovable property’.  

Ms Yan said she may not contest her son’s South Australian assets if the Chinese courts ruled in her favour, and that the outcome there would be known early next year.

Ms Yan asked for a delay in the Australian proceedings until the outcome of the Chinese case was known.   

Ms Kong argued that if the proceedings were delayed, it would freeze her late husband’s assets leaving her family emotionally and financially crippled.  

Justice Tim Stanley said there was no guarantee the Chinese court would resolve the case in a timely manner, and dismissed Ms Yan’s request.

‘The position of the plaintiff is not that the outcome of the Chinese proceedings will resolve the issues in the action in this Courtc,’ he said.

‘If dissatisfied with the outcome of the Chinese proceedings the plaintiff wishes to maintain her right to litigate here.

‘The plaintiff’s position amounts to having her cake and eating it.’ 

Mrs Kong asked for her mother-in-law to pay a security bond in Australia against any future court costs, which Ms Yan opposed as being prohibitively expensive.

Justice Stanley granted Mrs Kong’s application, adding that the costs should include enforcement not just in China but elsewhere.

‘While high there is no evidentiary basis to doubt the reasonable costs of the action are $350,000,’ he said in the pre-trial judgement. 

Ms Yan has been ordered to pay $350,000 to cover any future litigation costs.

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