It’s not very surprising that when wealthy spinster Joan Edwards left more than half a million pounds to whichever government was in power, everything went pear-shaped. It often does. There’s an old saying which goes: “When there’s a will, there’s a war.”
Now, in Joan Edwards’ case, neither the Conservative nor the Liberal Democrat parties were her loving relations, but just the possibility of gaining masses of money makes most people behave irrationally even at the best of times.
It’s even worse in bereaved families. “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. Even the closest of siblings and 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 love – the love lost when a person dies.
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 or 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. To outsiders it would seem as if we were squabbling over a cracked piece of china: I would actually 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.” Little things, big things, it doesn’t matter; the late Paula Yates was reported as being in dispute with her late father’s partner over back copies of the Saturday Evening Post.
Faced with a death, 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 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 the gifts as love; love that will stop up the aching gap of loss. When brothers and sisters or step-parents and step-children 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, how worthwhile they have been made to feel.
When a friend died recently and left me £5,000 compared with the £25,000 he left his other friends, instead of feeling delighted by having anything at all, I felt curiously hurt that he had made his feelings about me, compared with his other friends, so abundantly clear.
Possessions can also be used as transitional objects, like those cuddlies we used to take to bed with us. Queen Victoria laid out Prince Albert’s dressing gown and shaving gear every night for long after he died. But money, too, can link us very personally with the dead. 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 is and giving you something as a comfort, like a hug.
Disputes about wills can become Dickensian Jarndyce and Jarndyce affairs, with the estate draining away into the lawyers’ pockets. The drawn-out legal wrangle between Peter Sellers’ children and his widow, Lynn, who eventually acquired 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 actually 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 had children and was in greater need. Everything was fine, in theory, but as Roth’s father was dying, Philip had huge second thoughts about the sacrifice he’d 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.”
Whether you’re 20 years old or 80 years old it’s always sensible to make a will. And, preferably, you should always discuss your will with all your beneficiaries. Children should always be treated fairly unless it’s explained very clearly why they’ve been given less – because they’ve received more in the parents’ lifetime, for instance. And if you’re planning to leave everything to the cats’ home – or perhaps, like the German Countess Carlotta Leibenstein, to your pet dog – do warn your relations in advance. It’s bad enough for them to suffer when you die. They won’t be in any state to cope when they find that they have nothing, not a bean, to hold on to in order to lessen their pain.
But, however much you agree with your beneficiaries about what you plan to leave, however vast a sum, which should, in theory, be enough to satisfy everyone, no one can predict how well or badly behaved the heirs will be once you have gone. For wills are not about objects and cash; they’re about bereavement, and about how much you feel loved.
Virginia Ironside is the agony aunt of the ‘Independent’ and author of ‘No! I Don’t Need Reading Glasses’ (Quercus)