She promised him a rose garden - then she changed her mind

A cautionary tale
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The Independent Online
The pictures tell the tale. At the top the large photograph is of a bosky dell - an acre or so of pretty trees and rose bushes. Forget- me-nots and poppies sprinkle the flower beds, and the sun filters through the leaves and catches the daisies on the lawn. This is the inheritance; the cottage gardens in Crowthorne, Berkshire, of Mrs Gertrude Parker who died in 1995. And very nice they are.

Below this vision of limited Paradise, are the pictures of the dramatis personae in the court case that ended this week. In the middle the last, blurry image of Mrs Parker herself, in her mid-eighties, her face gaunt and her mouth open in that tremulous "who are you?" expression of extreme old age. On her left is a man of 60 or so - the first contender for Gertrude's worldly goods and gardens. Looking pained, Mr Bob Taylor - Mrs Parker's faithful gardener for many years - has just lost his two-year case claiming that Mrs Parker's true intention had been that he should inherit the bungalow and grounds.

On Gertrude's right is a very different face. A happy Hyacinth smiles out plumply at us, a woman in secure possession of that which is rightly hers. It is Mrs Margaret Bosher (ominously Dickensian name for a windfall inheritor), who also helped Mrs Parker in her last years, and to whom all was left.

The story is not complicated. Every day, for seven years Mr Taylor worked, free of charge, in the garden, reminding himself (as he had twice been told) that one day, all this would be his. As Mrs Parker declined, his distress must have been somewhat alleviated by the knowledge of the gratitude she felt towards him, and the manner in which that gratitude was to be shown.

The years went by. Mrs Parker, for long bedridden, eventually died, and Mr Taylor prepared to come into his inheritance. Only then did he discover the terrible truth: Mrs Bosher had got the lot. At some point in the past couple of years, unbeknownst to him, old Gertrude had changed her will. Mr Taylor argued in court that he had an implied contract with the dead woman, spent pounds 50,000 of his own savings on the case, and lost it. On Wednesday, the day of his defeat, a jubilant (if tactless) Mrs Bosher commented that she was "delighted that Mrs Parker had got her wishes. Norman [Mr Bosher] and I are both keen gardeners and we are looking forward to having a much bigger garden."

Now, let's wind back two years and picture the scene in Mrs Parker's last few days on earth. She is slipping. And she is surrounded by men and women who stand to benefit (or think they do) from her death. What does she imagine their emotions to be, if she imagines anything at all? Regret? Anxiety? Impatience? Or has she all along made the calculation that the only way a lonely widow without family can be sure of care and attention is if she allows it to be believed that kindness need not be its own reward?

If so, then there is some sort of contract there (though not one enforceable by law), which makes the expectations of the potential inheritors less, shall we say, ignoble. Though it has to be said that if Mrs Bosher was aware of (a) Mrs Taylor's belief in what was coming his way, and (b) the true state of Mrs Parker's intentions, then her demeanour in the last, long days of Gertrude's life would have made a study in suppressed emotions.

It's all hopeless, of course, and no less so within families. The trouble with the word inheritance, is that it implies a natural order of things; you inherit your parents' characteristics, their genes. It is therefore somehow your "right" that you should inherit their wealth, or a portion of it. Actually it is no such thing. Rather, it is repugnant and pernicious (two words that I have not used since I stopped writing editorials). Repugnant because it cannot be healthy for a son or daughter to have a vested interest in the death of a parent. Especially in these days when extended life expectancy can mean the rapid disappearance of a patrimony into nursing charges (or round-the-world cruises). Pernicious because, insofar as you do inherit anything, it is not anything that you yourself have deserved or striven for. How extraordinary it seems to me, that people who can talk about the dependency culture on the one hand, can also advocate reducing inheritance tax on the other.

Ah, but I am looking at it too much from the point of view of the inheritor, am I not? What about the entirely natural wish of the leaver to pass something on? Well, let us anatomise this feeling. Part of it is, I think, a kind of post-mortem swank, a keeping up with the dead Joneses. Celestially one will point at the Jaguar in one's son's driveway. Yet another part is an improper desire to engineer a future in which one will not take part. This is particularly evident in those conditions that some add to their wills. It can never work.

So would we really lose anything (and might we not gain much) were we to, say, impose 100 per cent tax on all inheritance beyond one sofa and the family photos? Had this been the law two years ago, Mr Taylor would be a much happier man today.