British stargazers are embroiled in a bizarre court battle over the £400,000 fortune of a celebrated astronomer who left everything to his ‘best friend’ in his will, but didn’t say who he was.
Amateur astronomer Roy Panther rose to national fame in 1980 when he discovered a comet with a homemade telescope from his suburb.
The discovery earned him an entry in the record books and he also featured on the long running BBC astronomy show ‘The Sky at Night’ when interviewed by Sir Patrick Moore.
Mr Panther, who died in 2016, intended to bequeath almost all of his worldly goods to the British Astronomical Association (BAA), but a bitter lawsuit has since erupted following the discovery of a new will written on his deathbed .
The handwritten document simply promises everything to ‘my best friend’ – and now his lifelong friend and fellow stargazer Alan Gibbs is battling in court to prove he is the ‘partner’ and thus the rightful heir.
Astronomer Roy Panther (pictured) achieved national fame in 1980 when he discovered a comet from his home with a homemade telescope
He made his discovery on Christmas Day in 1980 when he saw the faint signs of what would become ‘Comet Panther’ (pictured) from his home in Walgrave, Northants.
Mr. Panther’s former semi-suburb (pictured) where he saw the comet with a homemade telescope
However, the case – due to be fought next year – is being contested by the BAA, which says that simply saying ‘my dear friend’ is not enough to make a valid will and that Mr Panther was too weak at the time and was ill to fully understand it. what he was doing anyway.
Mr Panther, who was 90 when he died in hospital in October 2016, was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, who had built an observatory using home-built equipment at his home in Northamptonshire.
He made his astonishing discovery on Christmas Day in 1980 when he saw the faint signs of what would become ‘Comet Panther’ from his home in Walgrave, Northants.
He was doing a “systematic search” of the night sky when he spotted the new comet in the far north, in the constellation Draco.
It was his first success after more than 600 hours of searching and he later said in a television interview that it would mean his name would not be ‘forgotten by posterity’.
In 1986 he made a will, bequeathing almost all of his fortune, including his house in Old Road, Walgrave, to the BAA, of which he was a long-time member.
Two friends were given small sums of money, while another, Colin Eaton, was made executor and left £10,000 and Mr Panther’s optical and meteorological charts and equipment.
Mr Panther’s friend Colin Eaton (pictured) was appointed executor and was awarded £10,000, optical and meteorological charts and equipment.
But Mr. Gibbs, also of Northampton, now claims that while in Northampton General Hospital before his death, Mr. Panther dictated a new will and left everything to him.
The will, dated 11 September 2016, which Mr Gibbs says he transcribed at the behest of his old friend, states that ‘when I die’ his estate would go to ‘my dear friend’, which according to Mr Gibbs only can refer to him.
“Mr Gibbs and the deceased were lifelong friends, they had known each other for about 77 years,” his lawyer, Chris Bryden, says in documents filed with Central London County Court ahead of next year’s trial.
‘They shared a great interest in astronomy and founded an observatory together. The deceased purchased the property and Mr. Gibbs provided the equipment for this observatory.
It is admitted and alleged that the 2016 will does not refer to Mr Gibbs, but to ‘dear friend’. The compelling conclusion, however, is that the deceased was referring to Mr. Gibbs with this sentence.
“The deceased dictated the terms of the 2016 will to Mr. Gibbs. It is therefore normal that he used a colloquial language instead of calling him by name.
“The common and natural meaning of the expression ‘dear friend’ and the intention of the deceased was clearly to refer to Mr. Gibbs.”
But the BAA denies that the 2016 document was duly executed because it did not actually name the beneficiary.
They also question how it was seen, insisting that Mr. Panther was very weak and vulnerable at the time and did not fully understand what he was doing.
Sir Patrick Moore (pictured), who interviewed Mr Panther on the taping of the 650th ‘The Sky at Night’ for BBC television at his home in Selsey, West Sussex
Before the will was written, the BBA said, he had fallen at home and been hospitalized and medical staff said he was “difficult to understand” communication.
He also had dementia, the BBA says, and there were also concerns about his well-being because he had left his front door unlocked, allowing people to come and go uninvited.
Although previously an “articulate” man, he was described as “very confused” at the hospital, where Mr. Gibbs was his only visitor.
“The deceased was extremely vulnerable from August 30, 2016 until his passing,” said BAA lawyer Mukhtiar Singh.
‘At the time of making the handwritten note, the deceased lacked the strength and did not understand its nature and operation.
‘The deceased had serious communication problems due to his hearing and/or was unable to make decisions himself due to his cognitive impairment.’
But Mr Bryden says this is only part of the story, as other medical records suggest Mr Panther’s condition had improved while he was in hospital.
He was said to be “smart and chatty” and spoke in sentences days before the will was made and “smart and communicative” the day it was written.
“The decedent himself dictated the terms of the 2016 will and was aware of the nature and extent of his property and clearly expressed his wish that Mr Gibbs should receive the same,” Mr Bryden added.
The battle over the 2016 will will be heard next year at a three-day trial in Central London County Court, but reached court last week for a brief planning hearing on the evidence to be heard.
Judge Alan Johns KC granted an application for medical evidence to be produced by doctors at trial regarding Mr Panther’s ability to make a will while in hospital.