Where there's a will there's a war

When a loved one dies, the last thing anyone needs is a battle over the money. So why do so many people fight? Anna Moore talks to feuding families

Anna Moore
Friday 01 December 1995 00:02 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


W ills provide the perfect excuse for a family battle. They involve money, so they often spark straightforward greed, but they also offer a last chance for families to spill out long-suppressed jealousies, complex rivalries and buried pains.

Lisa Miller, psychotherapist with the Tavistock clinic, likens them to divorce settlements. "Wills are far more emotional matters than people realise," she says. "When divorcing couples spend weeks arguing over who gets the fridge, it's clear that they're really arguing about something deeper - in the same way, a will can bring all someone's unresolved negative emotions to the surface. Often, people are already so sensitised by the bereavement that they experience feelings - hurts and envies - that they didn't even know they had." Frequently, a will dispute is intimately related to the process of mourning. "The common feelings of anger among the bereaved for being left behind are channelled into a fight over the will."

A last will and testament also sets out on paper just how much each family member was valued by the person who died. Solicitor Gilfrid Baker Cresswell advises clients to leave a careful letter in a sealed envelope with their will explaining the reasons for any "unexpected" decisions. "Even if you're saying that the reason you cut 'X' out of your inheritance is because of a row you had 20 years ago, it's crucial to fully explain things, and draw it to a close." Without such explanations, a will dispute, more than any other, can last for ever. Wounds will stay wide open and conflicts remain unresolved, simply because, says Lisa Miller, "the only person who can answer the questions is gone".

Tony, 33, is an electrician. He and his two brothers are fighting their mother over their father's will.

We always seemed like a normal family. There were the usual problems. Mum would worry about money, and Dad was often away working, but generally, it was a happy home. Being boys, we were a bit closer to Dad. When we grew up, we all stayed in the same town.

Dad had cancer for two years before he died, so he had time to prepare. Towards the end, he took me on a walk to talk about the will. He was leaving half the house and its contents to his sons and the rest to Mum. He said he'd heard of cases where widows remarry and take on step-children, who eventually inherit more than the natural children. It seemed impossible at the time - Mum was heartbroken, and saying, "I'll never marry again". Now I reckon he was very shrewd.

He died last year and at first we stayed united by grief, especially as we'd nursed him together at home. No one had any intention of selling the house or the furniture.

But then Mum started nightclubbing. She was 52, but she'd go to "grab a granny" nights, dressed in mini-skirts and stilettos. Within months, she'd met a man 19 years younger. He was married, but he left his wife and moved into our house. Mum was lavishing gifts on him and selling bits of the furniture to pay for them. At first we were just worried. She was our mother, we loved her and we didn't want her to be used. We carried on visiting, but the relationship was strained. It ended the day we got a letter from her solicitors to say she was applying to overturn Dad's will, and fight us for our half of the house. We haven't spoken since.

You just don't expect your mother to do something like that. Our solicitor is the same man who drew up Dad's will, and he had Mum's application thrown out of court. Next, she offered to buy us out at a very low price. We refused, and now we're trying to get her out of the house altogether.

The shock has been unbelievable - my younger brother is now seeing a psychiatrist. Sometimes I go walking where my Dad's ashes are scattered and try to work out if we're doing the right thing by fighting back. But I'm pretty sure we are. Dad left that will for a reason.

When I look at old photos of us on family holidays, all laughing, it seems such a farce. Greed has totally destroyed our family. For Mum, it was a choice of us or the money, and the money won hands down. Looking at us now, arguing through solicitors, I think if Dad was still alive, this would have killed him anyway. Thank God he's not here to see it.

Nick, 29, an actor, cut off from most of his family after a will dispute four years ago.

I was an only child, but grew up in a bit of a Dallas-style extended family. Mum's parents had built a very successful local business, and her brother also lived close by, with his wife, son and two daughters.

Although we were cousins, we were more like brothers and sisters. Tim was two years older than me, so I hero-worshipped him in the way younger brothers do. We spent our childhood camping in each other's gardens, going on holidays. Each birthday and Christmas was spent at our grandparents'. When we left school, Tim and I both joined Grandfather's business.

When Grandfather died, he left half the shares to his son (my uncle) and the other half to Grandma on the understanding that she'd leave hers to Mum. Life carried on, then five years later, Grandma died and a week after that, Mum died of cancer. It was a very hard time. They were both in the same hospital, it was just a question of who would die first.

Grandma's will left a small amount for my cousins, and the remaining pounds 160,000 to my mother, who left it all to me. By now, the business had been wound down and sold off. After the funerals, all the surviving family met for a meal. It was a sad occasion but things seemed normal between us, there didn't seem to be any tensions.

The very next day, I received a solicitor's letter saying that my three cousins were contesting Grandma's will, on the basis that Mother's death had left me with a disproportionate share. It was a complete shock - I just went cold with the betrayal. These were people I loved. I couldn't believe they could be so vicious and greedy. It was the worst possible hurt and the worst possible timing. By contesting the will, they were showing that they had no respect for Grandma, my mother or me. I'd misjudged them all my life.

My first reaction was to fight, but I was warned it could drag on for years, and cost up to pounds 40,000 just battling it out. Then I decided the money didn't matter. I just wanted it to be over and to get away, so I offered them pounds 40,000 and they accepted. It was all done through solicitors. I haven't seen or spoken to them since that last meal four years ago, and never, ever want to.

I moved to London and started again. The only relative I'm still in contact with is my Dad. The swing from belonging to the archetypal extended family to the other extreme has been almost like losing a limb. I've no concept of family any more. You can choose your friends, but if you put your faith in someone just because she or he happens to be a relative, you're misguided. As far as I'm concerned, "family loyalty" doesn't exist.

Charlotte, 72, has been in therapy for three years since discovering that she had been written out of her mother's will.

Until Mother's death, I had thought that I had a very good relationship with my parents. Now, looking back on it, I was always an appendage. My mother was a career woman, which was unheard of in those days, and I was a solitary child. After school, I'd be alone in the house until they got home from work, and they sometimes went on holidays without me, leaving me with relatives.

When I was 21 and about to marry, my mother became pregnant again. I couldn't believe it. She was 45, and had shown no maternal instincts towards me. By the time her baby was born - a son - I was married. He was the first baby I'd ever encountered, I found him fascinating, and Mother made me his godmother. This time round, she gave up work to took after him.

Over the years, we seemed to have a normal family relationship. We visited regularly, and spent Christmases together. My sons were around my brother's age, and they became good friends. When my marriage broke down, my parents were very supportive and came to the divorce hearings. After that, I moved to be close to them. My brother also lived locally.

My divorce had left me financially insecure. I suffer badly with asthma, lived alone on a pension, and when I used to get tired, Dad would sometimes say, "Don't worry. When anything happens to us, you'll get half of everything." He was a very fair, genuine man and I never doubted it. There'd never been a rift of any kind.

When Dad died, he left everything to Mum, who lived to be 92. By the end, she was very frail and I visited her every day. Her will plunged me into severe shock. It left pounds 1,000 to each grandchild, and everything else - which came to about pounds 100,000 - to my brother. I got absolutely nothing. For almost a year, I suffered post traumatic shock syndrome. I could hardly move. I was on sleeping pills, and could just about get up in the mornings. I had terrible nightmares about my brother breaking into my house and stealing everything.

I went to a solicitor, but was told that you can't contest a will unless you're a dependant. My brother just took the money and I've had no contact with him since. Apparently, he'd always known about the will. If I tried to tackle him, I'd probably have a heart attack. The pain would be too much. I realise that when greed enters a situation, there's nothing you can do.

Until this happened, there'd been a number of minor family irritations, but I'd brushed them all away. Now I've had to totally re-evaluate my whole life. In a sense, I suppose I've finally seen the family as it really was. All the past incidents - the jealousies and favouritisms - are fitting into place. Once you've got the truth, you can begin to cope.

All names have been changed.

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