Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: My sister-in-law is threatening to take legal action against us
Monday 29 June 2009
After the recent death of her husband, my once-shy sister-in-law surprised us all by taking his employers to court over his pension – and winning. Now she's decided my brother, who was her husband's executor, did something wrong over the will and is threatening legal action. We've tried to be conciliatory, but she's determined to go ahead. I'm so angry and upset I feel like writing her a letter. What do you think?
Yours sincerely, Zara
I don't know who wired in the emotion of fury to erupt when it comes to a death, but whoever did should be shot. Grief is bad enough. But white rage? And yet when it comes to loss, it can come over all of us. Increasingly, I feel that all rage is triggered by loss whether it's loss of a person, loss of face, loss of attention or loss of self-esteem. If you don't agree, it's worth tracking the origins of the last time you felt furious. I bet you'll find loss lurking in there, somewhere.
I'd say that part of the reason your sister-in-law took her late husband's employers to court – and was fuelled by such energy that she actually won the case – was because the anger she felt kept her in touch with her husband. While she was fighting the old employers, in other words, she actually felt close to him. She was working on something in relation to her husband, and therefore she felt that he hadn't disappeared completely.
Of course once she won the case, she then again had to face up to the fact that her husband was dead. And therefore, to comfort herself, she looked around for some other way she could keep his flame alive in her heart... and what did she come up with? Brilliant solution! Take someone else to court!
Zara, your sister-in-law doesn't want to resolve this issue, I'm afraid, so there's no point in trying to be conciliatory. She wants a row, an ongoing tussle. As far as she's concerned, the more bitter it gets, the more people start rejecting her for her unreasonableness, the longer it goes on, the better. Subconsciously, the tussle is a way of keeping her husband alive inside herself.
Laurence Whistler, in a wonderful biography, The Initials in the Heart, wrote, when his wife died, that a friend, to comfort him in his misery, had told him that at some point he would "come through" it all. But Whistler didn't find that idea remotely consoling. "What was unendurable," he wrote, "was precisely the idea of 'coming through'... If she faded altogether, I thought, that would be the real goodbye; whereas grieving was only loving in another key."
Your sister-in-law's raging is also only "loving in another key." In the end, it will burn itself out. Rather than write a letter, try to distance yourself from this wretched situation as much as you can, remaining understanding, but detached. I know it's horribly personal for you at the moment but try, if you can, to see her frantic vindictiveness for what it is. A truly terrible grief.
Ask her how she feels
There are two possibilities: first, your sister-in-law wasn't so much shy as crushed, and now she has come out from under your brother's domination. Perhaps she was annoyed at not being trusted with the executorship – I know I would be. Maybe you have to find a way of dealing with this new person and her stored resentments? Ask her! Second, this may be her way of dealing with bereavement, as may your anger. Furious energy and anger are common reactions, whether your husband in this instance has done anything 'wrong' or not. Try backing off and hopefully she will calm down as the legal delays drag out.
Anonymous, by email
She's still grieving
I suppose you could give it a try as you have nothing to lose, but by the sounds of it your sister-in-law is on a roll and there may be no stopping her. Also, as she won the case against her husband's employers she may, dare I say it, have a point in the case of your brother.
Remember, she has just lost her husband and she is obviously grieving and feels she should fight in her husband's name. Before you write the letter, try and put yourself in her shoes and ask yourself what would you do in the same situation. You may be better off staying out of it and letting your brother fight his own battles.
Give her free rein
So the worm has finally turned. Or turned out to have a steely core that no one had ever suspected. Why don't you let her have free rein on this and see how far she can go? Unless of course you're afraid that your brother really did do something unspeakable over the will, in which case you might consider writing a cross letter to him instead of to her.
It is a lovely thing when a hitherto timid woman finds her voice. And you seem genuinely surprised and even slightly admiring that she has. So my suggestion is that you support her and stop being so grumpy. You are a woman yourself and I'm sure you can imagine how hard it would be suddenly to find yourself a widow.
Does she have a point?
Firstly, this is your brother's problem not yours. Any letter from you would only make matters worse.
Secondly, the essence of the problem is whether your brother thinks she has any grounds for her complaint. If she has then he should try to be conciliatory and put matters right. But if he is confident that everything was done correctly, all he can do is get a good solicitor to deal with it. In my experience, few litigants ever get the executor's work overturned unless there has been obvious dishonesty.
Let her get on with it
Given your sister-in-law's aptitude for spotting malpractice and proving it successfully in court, she may well have another good case if she has enough evidence. I understand you wish to protect your brother, but rather than write to your sister-in-law asking her to back off, I would suggest you let her get on with it and if she truly can uncover evidence of foul play then it will be in the interest of everyone to know in the long term.
Try to resolve it
Ask her to write down what she thinks your brother has done wrong. Then try and resolve this by talking to your brother rather than going straight for legal action.
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