The ultimate good will

Matthew Harding, the Chelsea FC vice-chairman who died in a helicopter crash, has left both his wife and his mistress happy with his will. A miracle? Almost.

"Mine!" "No, mine!" "He never liked you!" "He loved me best!" "Gimme." "No gimme." Arguing about a will can often make the beneficiaries behave like desperate three-year-olds - and it says an enormous amount for the millionaire Matthew Harding's widow and mistress that they've come to some agreement about how his money should be divided. His wife, with whom he spent the weekends, has accepted about pounds 50m; his mistress and his two-year-old daughter have accepted about pounds 25m.

Despite tantrums at the funeral - his mistress fled, because she wasn't acknowledged in the service - they have somehow come to an amicable arrangement. That must have been particularly difficult for them, because a mistress and a wife, however civilised they may appear, always find it hard to be polite to each other, or ever admit that either deserves a penny from the man they cared for. And even the best of friends can fall out over wills, because the money and possessions left in a will represent, at least in the early days, not just money and things, but the love lost when a person dies.

Disputes about wills can become Jarndyce versus Jarndyce affairs, with the estate draining away into the lawyers' pockets. The long, drawn-out legal wrangle between Peter Sellers' children and his widow, Lynn, who eventually got the estate, was bitter and resentful - and typical. But even when wills are anticipated with love, kindness and civility before the death, when a loved one dies everything can go sour.

Philip Roth told his father that he didn't need to be a beneficiary of his will because his brother, Sandy, had children and was in greater need. Everything was fine in theory, but as his father was dying, Roth had huge second thoughts about the sacrifice he had made. "Being told by him that he had gone ahead, and, on the basis of my request, substantially eliminated me as one of his heirs, elicited an unforeseen response," he wrote in Patrimony. "I felt repudiated - and the fact that his eliminating me from the will had been my own doing did not at all mitigate this feeling of having been cast out by him ... To my great dismay, standing with him over his last will and testament, I discovered that I wanted my share of the financial surplus that had been accumulated over a lifetime by the obdurate, resolute father of mine. I wanted the money because it was his money and I was his son and I had a right to my share, and I wanted it because it was ... something like the embodiment of all that he had overcome or outlasted. Didn't I think I deserved it? Did I consider my brother, and his children, more deserving inheritors than I? Just where had this impulse to cast off my right of inheritance come from, and how could it have so easily overwhelmed expectations that I now belatedly discovered a son was entitled to have?"

When a loved one dies, their estate can take on a mysterious meaning, as if it were the last link with the dead person, often becoming imbued with their very lost selves, talismans of their souls. Whether the estate is worth millions, like Matthew Harding's, or is just a sad collection of scrappy plates and brooms, families can fight and fall out. There is a particular saucer of my mother's, for instance, that just "is" her. Whenever I look at it, she's there. If someone else were to take it I would be furious, and fight for it. Were another relative to want it, to outsiders it would seem as if we were squabbling over a cracked piece of china: I would in fact be fighting for dear life for a part of her.

In her book When Parents Die, Rebecca Abrams wrote: "Immediately after my father's death I was obsessed with the need to have things of his to remind me of him, to keep him alive in some way. I wanted to build a fortress of his books and clothes and pictures and hide inside it ... I was anxious lest my stepmother failed to realise how important my father's belongings were to me, anxious lest other brothers and sister took things I felt I needed." Little things, big things, it doesn't matter - Paula Yates was, until recently, reported as being in dispute with her late father's partner over back copies of the Saturday Evening Post.

Faced with someone who has died, you are left with a hole in your life. The natural reaction is: "How can I fill that hole?" The mind turns to the will. How much the dead person left you is a way of filling up the gap. The money or property turns into a symbol of their love and affection. People may say, "It's only money." But the beneficiaries often don't see it as "only money". They see their gifts as love - love that will stop up the aching gap of loss.

When brothers and sisters or step-parents and stepchildren are seen wrangling over the will, most people think of them as greedy and grasping; more usually they are just bereft and desperate, and their anxiety about how the estate should be distributed is just another aspect of their feelings of bereavement, and of how worthwhile they have been made to feel. When a friend recently died and left me pounds 5,000, compared to the pounds 25,000 he left his other friends, instead of feeling delighted by having anything at all I just felt curiously hurt that he had made his feelings about me, compared to his other friends, so abundantly clear.

Money and possessions can also be used as transitional objects, like those cuddlies we used to take to bed with us. After Prince Albert's death, Queen Victoria laid out his dressing-gown and shaving gear every night before she went to sleep; but money, too, can link us very personally with the dead person. There can be something very touching about a surprise gift in a will. You have a feeling that the person gone is reaching out from wherever he or she is, and giving you something as a comfort, like a hug.

What kind of man can Matthew Harding have been that he managed to keep two women reasonably happy, not only in life but also after death? Perhaps it was that he never kept either woman secret from the other, and that each knew exactly where she fitted into his life. Although his marriage to his wife was over, she must have been pleased that he returned at weekends to stay with the family, and felt that perhaps as his first love she was his true love. His mistress probably imagined herself as his second wife, the mother of his latest child, his "soulmate", as she wrote on the wreath she left at his funeral. Weekends were for one; weeks for the other. As far as dealing with them after death went, although he left a vast estate of pounds 200m, Harding cleverly did not stipulate what should be left to either woman, so that he himself never had to declare whether he loved the mistress and daughter pounds 25m-worth, and his wife and four other children twice as much. He simply asked that the two should be provided for, leaving it to two friends to execute his wishes in whatever way they felt best. In this case, were the two women to have gone to court they would not have been fighting over how much he loved either of them, but over plain old moneyn

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