Bizarre legal dispute opens over £400k fortune left to astronomer’s ‘best friend’

Stargazers have found themselves locked in a furious legal dispute over the £400,000 fortune of amateur astronomer Roy Panther who allegedly left his fortune to his “best mate” in his will. The hook here is that he he never clarified who his best pal actually was. Mr Panther rose to national fame in 1980 when he discovered a comet, dubbed Comet Panther, from his home in Northamptonshire. He found it by performing a “systematic search” of the skies at night when he stumbled upon the previously undiscovered comet in the constellation of Draco.

The discovery earnt him a place in the record books and he bagged a TV interview with Sir Patrick Moore for the BBC’s The Sky at Night. When the amateur astronomy legend died in 2016 at the age of 90, it was expected that the bulk of his wealth would go to the British Astronomical Association (BAA), including his home at Old Road in Walgrave, Northampton. 

But now, a heated dispute has erupted over the new discovery of another will he wrote on his deathbed. He promised everything to his “best mate” in a handwritten document written in hospital, prompting his lifelong pal Alan Gibbs to bring the matter to court.

Mr Gibbs claims he truly was Mr Panther’s greatest friend, and therefore the rightful heir to everything that the stargazer left behind, but the BAA has questioned whether Mr Gibbs really is entitled to the amateur astronomer’s fortune. The case is set to be fought next year and is being contested by BAA.

The organisation argues that claiming to be Mr Panther’s  “best mate” is not a valid excuse for acquiring the astronomer’s belongings. The BAA also argues that Mr Panther was too sick to fully comprehend what he was doing at the time.

But while medical records show he had dementia, the opposing side says Mr Panther’s condition was improving in hospital. Mr Panther had also written a will back in 1986, in which he left almost all of his fortune, including his home, to the BAA.

He also left some cash to two friends. His friend Colin Eaton was also named executor of the will and was left £10,000 and the astronomer’s optical and meteorological charts and equipment. But Mr Gibbs, from Northampton, argues that while he was in Northampton General Hospital, Mr Panther had dictated a new will that left everything to him.

Dated September 11, 2016, the will states that “if I die”, his estate would go to “my best mate” which Mr Gibbs says must be him, the Daily Mail reports.Mr Gibbs’ barrister, Chris Bryden, in documents filed at Central London County Court ahead of next year’s trial, said: “Mr Gibbs and the deceased were lifelong friends, having known each other for around 77 years. 

“They shared a keen interest in astronomy and together established an observatory. The deceased purchased the premises and Mr Gibbs provided equipment for this observatory. It is admitted and averred that the 2016 will does not refer to Mr Gibbs by name but rather to ‘best mate’. However the compelling inference is that the deceased by this phrase was referring to Mr Gibbs.

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“The deceased dictated the terms of the 2016 will to Mr Gibbs. It is therefore natural that he used a colloquial phrase, rather than identifying him by name.The ordinary and natural meaning of the phrase ‘best mate’ and the intention of the deceased was clearly to refer to Mr Gibbs.”

However, the BAA rejects the claim that the 2016 document was duly executed because as it never mentioned the beneficiary by name. It also questions how it was witnessed. The BBA also argued that Mr Panther had suffered a fall at home and been hospitalised, with medical staff saying he found it “difficult to understand” communications. The BBA also noted that Mr Pahtner had dementia and there were serious concerns about his welfare

The BAA’s barrister Mukhtiar Singh said: “The deceased was extremely vulnerable from 30 August 2016 until he passed away. At the time of making the handwritten note, the deceased lacked capacity and did not understand the nature and effect of it.

“The deceased had serious communication difficulties due to his hearing and/or he was unable to make decisions for himself due to his cognitive impairment.”

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Mr Gibbs’ lawyer argues that other medical records show that Mr Panther’s condition had improved while in he was in hospital.He said: “The deceased himself dictated the terms of the 2016 will and was aware of the nature and extent of his property and clearly expressed that he wished for Mr Gibbs to receive the same.”

The battle over the 2016 will is set to be heard during a three-day trial at Central London County Court next year. The dispute was heard in court last week for a short planning hearing dealing with the evidence that is set to be presented at a later date.

Back in 2018, it was discovered that Mr Panther’s paternal aunt, Mathilda Panther, and cousin Gladys Faulkner were rightful heirs as heir to part of his £290,000 estate. But Ms Faulkner lived only eight miles away from Mr Panther for 40 years and said she never even knew he existed. 

She said:”We were taken by complete surprise when the phone call came, and you think this doesn’t happen very often, why should it happen to me. It was a total shock. To think that I had a relative like Roy, that I never knew or heard of. It’s odd to think Roy lived very close to me for almost four decades and I never even knew him. It’s a shame and I wish I had known him.”