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BLOG: A toxic legacy

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13/11/2014
Perhaps the only surprise in the recent news that over a quarter of families fall out after the death of a loved one, is that the number is so few.

Around 60% of these arguments are down to money. The financial settlement someone leaves on death may just define how they are remembered by their nearest and dearest.

Charles Dickens intended the famous Jarndyce and Jarndyce case in Bleak House to be a satire, but plenty of famous families have squandered huge amounts in legal fees to win their rightful share of a dead relative’s estate. The family of the late Peter Ustinov, for example, waged a nine year court battle over his legacy, that left it significantly diminished.

In the Ustinov case, the situation was complicated by his three marriages and four children, but even apparently conventional families can tear themselves apart over a legacy. The Daily Mail recently reported the case of Tony McGuire, who took a sledgehammer to a £300,000 house after a row with his siblings over ownership. The problems can start even before death. The daughter of L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt has gone to court to prove that her 89-year old mother is not fit to manager her £16bn fortune.

Making a will certainly offers some protection. At the very least, it makes your wishes clear and, in most cases, families will abide by those wishes. However, over the last few years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of legal cases challenging wills. This is possible in certain circumstances, such as where a family member believes they had a right to be provided for in the will.

It is worth bearing in mind that bequeathing different assets may also cause problems. Assets may dramatically increase or decrease in value – property may rise, while equity markets may fall and so on – thereby leaving an unintended skew in the distribution of wealth. Equally, bequeathing assets based on apparent financial need is also likely to cause problems. One sibling may be wealthier than the other, but they may believe this is because they have worked harder, or invested more wisely.

Perhaps the most effective tool to head off familial disputes is to reveal the contents of the will before you die. That way, siblings with a gripe get a chance to air it while you can still defend yourself. Nothing beats an explanatory letter to all interested parties explaining why you have distributed your wealth as you have done.

It is easy to see why some people choose to ignore the issue altogether and never make a will. That way, they can’t be ‘blamed’ for the consequences. However, it is a less courageous option and does not allow for any tax mitigation. The best route is to be brave and be honest, get the arguments settled and then you can rest in peace.

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