A woman anxious to keep her inheritance from her husband 'gifted' £600,000 to a builder who is now refusing to give it back.
Sarah Byrne, 47, inherited £1million from her father's business and planned to hide it from her partner Tony as she wanted to divorce him .
She transferred £600,000 to builder and designer Stephen Howie, 58, in January 2017, who said he would return it on demand.
But when the couple went on a family holiday, they decided to reconcile.
Mrs Byrne told her husband about the £600,000 and texted Howie to ask for it back. But he refused and claimed the cash was an investment.
The couple took the matter to the court and this week a High Court judge in London ordered him to give the money back.
But Mr Howie, a dad-of-six, has now fled to Japan.
The court heard Mr and Mrs Byrne moved to Camberley in Surrey with their three children four years ago.
They met Mr Howie for a quote when they were considering building an extension.
Although they did not go ahead with Mr Howie, Mrs Byrne considered him a friend and even shared her plans to divorce her husband.
Fearing that she would be left with nothing after the divorce, she was told by Mr Howie that she 'needed to place her assets out of reach of her husband'.
The court also heard that Mr Howie had told Mrs Byrne that a judge friend of his advised divorcees to 'gift' money to a friend, and simply get it back when the divorce was complete.
London High Court judge Simon Monty QC said: "Mr Howie offered to take some of the money on that basis."
Mrs Byrne transferred £600,000 to him in January 2017 and said she did after Mr Howie 'said he would repay it at any time' and put a letter promising to do so in a safe.
He also took her children’s passports claiming her husband could whisk the youngsters overseas.
The High Court ruling noted that the builder said he would be safer if he disguised the transfer as an investment in his business, and drew up documents indicating she was buying a 20 per cent share.
Judge Monty noted that if it had been an attempt to hide the cash from Mr Byrne it would have ‘almost certainly failed’ anyway.
The High Court judgment said: "Mr Howie refused to return the money, saying it was Mrs Byrne’s investment in his company."
Judge Monty rejected Mr Howie’s evidence and ruled that although Mrs Bryne’s 'dishonest' agreement had been a 'sham' designed to conceal the money, it would be wholly wrong for Mr Howie to benefit from it – particularly as the divorce never occurred
He accordingly accepted Mrs Byrne’s case, and ruled that Howie must return the money.
Howie could not be contacted, therefore he is also facing unconnected police action for unfair trading, fraud and money laundering.