I feel a lot of sympathy for Christine Gill in her courtroom battle for the estate of her deceased parents, which began last week. After caring for her mother and father for many years, she could reasonably have expected better than to find they had left their estimated £2.3m estate to the RSPCA, which incidentally is just about the UK's wealthiest charity. Understandably Christine feels aggrieved and is trying to get the will overturned. But as with any challenge to a legal will, she faces a huge battle, not least because the RSPCA will be lawyered up to the eyeballs.
Christine's case is an extreme one but there are probably thousands of will-related heartaches that go unreported each year. Some are by design, others by cock-up.
Problems can arise in all sorts of ways such as having an old will where the legacies are out of date, or a badly written will where it's not clear who gets what. One of the worst situations I've heard of was when someone bought one of those DIY will kits and filled it out. Sadly, they didn't understand the law and got the chief beneficiary to act as a witness. Automatically, that person was barred from the inheritance.
Nearly as bad as a poorly drawn-up will is no will at all. Die without one and the intestacy law kicks in – and the rules governing that date from some bygone era that only ever existed in Enid Blyton books. Spouses get the bulk of the estate (although when there are kids and the estate is large, far from all of it) but unmarried partners are entitled to zilch. Intestacy laws are a crude and unreliable backstop to making a will.
Despite all this, some two-thirds of us don't have a will. So why's that? Of course a good many people are simply too busy or lazy, while others can't bear to think about the grim reaper. And a fair proportion, I guess, are put off by the horrendous legal jargon that wills are couched in.
No justice at the Rock
Northern Rock's deal with Lloyds TSB to, in effect, transfer a large amount of its better-quality mortgage business should come into force any day now. Those borrowers escaping the Rock in the next few weeks can breathe a sigh of relief, particularly as the nationalised bank is basically persuading customers to leave it with a crude imposition of higher-than-normal interest rates. Perhaps Lloyds should bundle an "I survived Northern Rock" T-shirt into its welcome pack.
However, as I've written before in this column, many of those borrowers who remain are probably ruing the day they ever took on a Rock mortgage. Take the reader who wrote to me when the Lloyds tie-up was first announced. He bought one of the Rock's infamous "Together" mortgages, borrowing more than 100 per cent of the value of the property in the process, and is now facing the twin misery of paying an interest rate that's over the odds and being stuck in negative equity. Crucially, the reader can't move mortgage provider because no other company wants to risk such an enormous loan-to-value.
Again I ask: aren't the actions of the Rock – expressly the higher-than-normal rates they are levying on customers – in direct contravention of the much-vaunted instruction from the Financial Services Authority that all banks and insurers should treat their customers fairly?
Plainly this bank's borrowers aren't being treated fairly – and all so that Rock chief Ron Sandler can pull off the financial Red Adair act he was appointed by the Government to perform.