Rowan Pelling: Ashes to ashes, cash to the cat...

The distribution of a person's worldly goods is their last opportunity to have a really great laugh


"What will survive of us is love," wrote Larkin in a rare sentimental mood. The late Countdown host Richard Whiteley certainly left a lot of hot lovin' in his wake, judging by a will that sounds as if it should have been read aloud to a Barry White album. He left a flat in Leeds to former long-term love Jeni Cropper, a house in Chiswick and half his pension to his lovechild James, son of former lover Lesley Ebbetts, and a house in the Yorkshire Dales and the other half of his pension to his partner of 11 years, Kathryn Apanowicz. He also left a cottage to his niece and a legacy to his old school, Giggleswick. Nobody was forgotten and every award seemed generous yet proportionate. It wasn't only love that transcended the grave, but Whiteley's own particular brand of utterly smashing niceness.

But surely that's what drawing up a will is all about - the deceased making a final, crafty play for the living's attention, thus ensuring some essential residue of their existence lingers in the ether as long as there's someone around to honour - or resent - them. I'm just not sure how often that residue is love; it seems to me that all depends upon how loving and loveable you are. Take the late Ted Heath, for example. He was not the sort of man to teach the world to sing or to scatter it with rose petals. If a man in black was seen abseiling down your house, the least likely solution to that conundrum was: "It's just Ted Heath dropping off a box of Milk Tray." What will survive of him is obduracy, self-regard, a paragraph in the history of the EEC, and the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation at his old home Arundells in Salisbury. It takes a rare breed of man to ponder a £5m fortune in a world of starving orphans, three-legged donkeys and imminent eco- disaster and decide, on balance, that the best use of those funds after your demise is to establish a museum dedicated to yourself - especially when you're not Winston Churchill, Picasso or Charles Dickens. Can you really imagine saying brightly to the kids, "I know what, let's go to the Ted Heath museum today!"?

Regrettably few people exploit their last will and testament to its full provocative potential, and many never write one at all. Quite apart from the almighty inconvenience that dying intestate causes your family, you lose your final chance to tease those you love or loathe from beyond the grave. All the best wills should have one tremendous surprise.

I think we all know the kind of thing I'm talking about: your collection of stuffed owls dispatched to a hitherto unknown second family in Hemel Hempstead; a lock of your pubic hair bequeathed to the village butcher; your sexually explicit love letters to be sent to Richard and Judy. My husband wants to dispatch a uniquely hideous pastel-toned print of a hippo we were once given to his old Oxford College, to be known as "The AFS MacKinnon Bequest". Either that, or bequeath it to John Prescott, "Dear Sir, as some small token of the esteem in which I hold your planning acumen."

It is, of course, vital that you make it clear to your dependents that you might change your will at the drop of a hat. This should prevent them carting you off to the Sunny Farm Care Home at the first sign of drool spilling down your chin. An old boyfriend of mine was cut out of his aged aunt's will at the last moment when she decided that his lack of visits meant that the RSPB deserved her millions more than he did. He said he could never look kindly upon a sparrow again. Mind you, he learnt the art of wind-up at the master's knee. For the two years I was with him, he repeatedly mentioned that his will was still made out to his beautiful but barking former fiancée. I was incensed by the idea that he could be knocked down by the 38 bus and she would get the Hockney and the Notting Hill love-pad.

Now I've reached an age myself where I have a heavily mortgaged house, a life-insurance policy and a few scrappy possessions to bequeath, and I want to squeeze maximum amusement from the process. I intend to include detailed instructions for six of my closest woman friends to indulge in a version of Supermarket Sweep with my vast clothing and shoe collection. They will have to stand on the doorstep of the house while my husband fires a starting pistol and claw their way up the narrow staircase for the ultimate all-female wrestling scenario. I will leave a small annuity to the patrons of the Academy Club in London to toast my name in champagne on the anniversary of my demise. And I want my knickers packed in lavender and posted to George Clooney. Finally, I was going to leave all my money to my Maine Coon cat Wavell, the friendliest and most eccentric beast I ever owned. Alas, he was mown down in the small hours of last Saturday morning. All that survives of him are clumps of soft ginger hair sprinkled like thistledown across my desk.

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