There is a pretty interesting six part series on BBC2 that I’ve been watching the past few weeks. It sets out a deeply English focused (it’s not their fault) view of complicated succession issues. They’ve mainly focused on situations where you want to give unequal shares to people or things that your other beneficiaries, spouse etc shouldn’t benefit (eg. charities). I think that equal shares are a perfectly nice option but that is probably more to do with how utterly confused by succession law I got and with my shaky knowledge of distributions (intestacy is particularly awful stuff) I would do anything to keep it simple for myself than anything to do with me being a crazy egalitarian lefty.
People really do not think about wills on the whole because it inherently means that you are looking at your imminent (at least in your eyes) death. There’s no obvious benefit to you spending time and money thinking about how to divide things after you’re gone but there are benefits for the people who are left behind if you have an easy and straightforward succession — it might even be something that your heirs should pay for more than you.
It’s quite interesting to see how the process of exploring the issues and thinking out how to handle these things works and it’s always interesting to see that there is a creative solution to these problems which transforms what looks a lot like a really intractable problem into something the parties are really happy about. That’s one of the things that really points me towards practice as a job (not being certain that I like the rest of it and that anyone will let me are the reasons pointing against).
I’m a big fan of contracts. I think that they’re such a simpler way of doing things, with all the caveats that “simpler” includes when dealing with contentious issues, and I was particularly impressed this week. There was a Muslim couple who wanted a Sharia compliant will to stick to a Qua’ranic injunction that requires them to divide inheritances 2:1 between sons and daughters without being unfair about it. 2:1 shares of property would have been unbelievably progressive when the historical position was that the daughters were property but not so good today when women have equal agency. The solution they settled on was creating conditions in the will determining that the extra share to the son would be contingent on him accepting the responsibility of caring for his sisters after the parents died and if he didn’t want that responsibility he wouldn’t get the extra money. This was all written into the will. From what I can see of the reactions to how it was decided I think that one is likely to be reasonably successful.
The less successful arrangement seems to be the division of a family farm between three farming sons and a non-farming daughter. The sons clearly don’t want the daughter around the farm (I wonder if this is why the daughter doesn’t like farming) and were pretty clearly circling wagons to get as much of the estate as they possibly could. They wanted all of the farming assets because the daughter wasn’t a farmer and they wanted equal shares of the non-farming assets because they were part of their parents’ estate. They compromised by creating a partnership through the will, where all the children had to agree to stop farming to liquidate it, but the sons seemed to be a bit cold to it. The only solution I can see for that one is fratricide.
A good will is not going to settle every dispute after you’re dead but at least you’ve tried. The mantra of the show is you should talk to your relatives before you die and try to flush out any latent issues that are going to flare up after you die. I think that goes for most things in life but it’s a big deal for things you’re never going to be in a position to try to fix after the fact. The series is ongoing – BBC2 Fridays at 9pm and on iPlayer and I recommend it.