A chorus of outraged Australians has signed a petition demanding a super fund return $180,000 to the mother of a court clerk who died after her relationship with a magistrate 45 years her senior was made public.
Ashleigh Petrie, 23, bequeathed the entire balance and death benefit of her super and life insurance to her struggling mother while she was in a relationship with 68-year-old Victorian magistrate Rodney Higgins.
But when Ms Petrie was fatally hit by a car in October 2019, Mr Higgins argued that because they’d been living together for about 12 weeks, he was her ‘dependent’ and therefore entitled to her super pay out upon her death.
Rest Super agreed and awarded him the money despite what Ms Petrie requested, but the funds have been tied up as her mother begs the court to reconsider.
Some 1,500 Australians have since signed a petition demanding the fund to give the cash to Ms Petrie’s mother, as per her wishes.
Victorian magistrate Rod Higgins has claimed the $180,000 super fund of his former fiancee Ashleigh Petrie (together, above). The 23-year-old died eight days after the pair became engaged (right) after weeks of scrutiny about their controversial relationship
Ashleigh Petrie, 23, bequeathed the entire sum of her super and life insurance to her struggling mother while she was in a relationship with Victorian magistrate Rodney Higgins
‘What is the point of nominating a beneficiary if an old white dude can just swan in and claim it out from under them?’ Shannon McDonald, who created the petition, said.
‘It’s been a win-win-win for him… We’re asking Rest Super to overturn this abhorrent decision.’
After Ms Petrie’s death, Mr Higgins moved back to the riverside home in Shepparton he shared with his former partner, Lurline Le Neuf, to resume their 18-year relationship.
He is still employed as a magistrate and earns $324,000 each year.
‘Her mum was the named beneficiary. It was her wish that her mum got the benefit. If she had wanted her partner to get it, she would have changed it. She didn’t,’ another signatory said.
‘This money needs to go to her mother… She needs it more than he does for grief and loss for her… He’s gone back to his wife.’
Ashleigh Petrie bequeathed her superannuation death benefits to her mother(pictured here with Ashleigh and her brother Brett) but the super fund judged Rod Higgins to be her dependent de facto
After Ms Petrie’s death, Mr Higgins moved back to the riverside home in Shepparton he shared with his former partner, Lurline Le Neuf, to resume their 18-year relationship
Details of their controversial relationship were played out on social media with the couple posting happy pics, including a trip to Fiji where Ms Petrie got engaged to the grandfather of eight just days before her sudden death.
Stuart Gowty, 50, who dated Ms Petrie for five years, told Daily Mail Australia of his disgust and bitterness at Mr Higgins.
‘Here’s a guy earning a hell of a lot of money and is about to retire on a huge pension,’ said Mr Gowty, who runs a picture framing business in Shepparton.
‘And you’ve got a grieving mother with very little. I don’t know what to say. I don’t think it’s the right thing. It’s horrendous to see. It just keeps going.’
Mr Gowty said he has maintained a close relationship with Ms Petrie’s mother and brother since her death and that they’re both still struggling to comprehend their loss.
Her mother’s lawyer, Kimble Stynes, told 7News the grieving mum is ‘horrified’ by the news.
Stuart Gowty, 50, (pictured with Ashleigh Petrie) who dated Ms Petrie for five years, has spoken of his disgust at Mr Higgins, who earns $324,000 a year as a magistrate in Bendigo. Ms Petrie lived with Mr Higgins for four months before her sudden death.
Mr Higgins and Ms Petrie had been a couple for seven months and lived together for around 12 weeks at the time of her tragic death in Metung, East Gippsland.
Although Ms Petrie’s mother was reportedly her super and life insurance beneficiary, fund management at Rest Super ruled the couple had lived together long enough for Mr Higgins to be her de facto partner and claim the death benefit.
During a 15-month-long legal fight to lay claim to the cash, Mr Higgins was said to have been aggrieved that Ms Petrie’s mother had not shared her daughter’s ashes with him.
But Mr Gowty told Daily Mail Australia: ‘This is a guy who moved back in with his partner… and on the day he moved back in, he allegedly threw everything of Ashleigh’s out in the bin.’
Mr Gowty started his relationship with Ms Petrie after the pair worked together while she was still a teenager, and he lived next door to Mr Higgins and Ms Le Neuf.
Stuart Gowty (pictured) started the relationship with Ms Petrie after the pair worked together while she was still a teenager, and he lived next door to Mr Higgins and Ms Le Neuf
But their relationship broke down and Ms Petrie began to date his elderly neighbour, Mr Higgins.
‘I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t realise it was him,’ Mr Gowty told Daily Mail Australia.
The pair split when she told him about the relationship and they stopped talking to each other the day before the first news story about her relationship with Mr Higgins appeared late in 2019.
On the day Ms Petrie died, Mr Gowty first found out from Mr Higgins’ former partner and Mr Gowty had to break the news to her mother.
‘I actually found out before the family did,’ he said. ‘I was the one that made the phone call to the mother.
‘I can’t tell you what Ashleigh was thinking. You can ask 100 people and you’ll get 100 different answers. No-one knows.’
Details of the controversial relationship were played out on social media with the couple posting happy pics, including a trip to Fiji where Ms Petrie got engaged to the grandfather of eight just days before her death
On the day Ashleigh Petrie (pictured) died, Mr Gowty first found out from Mr Higgins’ former partner and had to break the news to her mother. Magistrate Rodney Higgins has now resumed his 18-year relationship with his retired former partner, Lurline Le Neuf (pictured)
Mr Higgins and Ms Le Neuf still live in Shepparton despite Mr Higgins being shunned by many in the town in the wake of Ms Petrie’s death.
‘Initially, there was certainly a backlash against him,’ Mr Gowty said. ‘They weren’t getting invited to all the parties around town, let’s just say that.’
Mr Gowty is no longer a neighbour with the couple because of tension over the love-split but had to endure the awkward situation for 18 months because of Covid lockdowns.
‘The situation was the main reason,’ he said.
Ms Petrie’s family are now understood to be appealing Rest Super’s decision to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority.
A spokesman for the AFCA told Daily Mail Australia they could not comment on individual cases.
But their website says: ‘Under its Rules, AFCA must do what is fair in all the circumstances.
‘We first try to help the parties resolve a complaint through negotiation or conciliation. Next, AFCA can provide a preliminary assessment about the merits of a complaint.
‘If there is still no resolution, the final step is for AFCA to make a binding decision.’
For confidential support in Australia call the Lifeline 24-hour crisis support on 13 11 14.
Stuart Gowty (pictured here on social media with Ashleigh Petrie) has now finally moved away from living next door to the couple because of tension over the love-split but had to endure the awkward situation for 18 months because of Covid lockdowns
Why Mr Higgins won Ms Petrie’s life insurance
Magistrate Rodney Higgins argued that because he and Ms Petrie were engaged to be married and living together, he should be entitled to her life insurance and superannuation payout.
Rest Super policy states that if a person is in a defacto relationship and therefore a dependent of the deceased, they have a claim to the sum of money.
While Ms Petrie explicitly stated that she wanted her struggling mother to remain her beneficiary, Rest Super determined Mr Higgins’ claim was valid and he was awarded the funds.
Ms Petrie’s mother has been fighting in court since her death to have the decision overturned.