It’s being so cheerful that keeps me going, obviously. I’m hoping to be informative and helpful and pass on some things I’ve learned lately because dying and what happens afterwards to the person that dies and the people left behind is something we are all naturally unwilling to contemplate. Talking about it, especially with the old N&D* in anything other than a jokey way, is very difficult and, in families, even when there is a recent death, the subject is difficult to raise for fear of upsetting people, especially old people or sick people.
I have been forced, lately, to think in depth about many issues around dying. I’ve discovered that what you might think would be helpful to those you leave behind, when you’re thinking it on a nice sunny afternoon when you are hale and hearty, is not necessarily that helpful thing when you get there. I have also realised, through recent and bitter experience, that dealing effectively with the issues on a nice sunny afternoon can minimise that suffering to your relatives and make the whole process that follows death much easier.
If all your arrangements are made, or you don’t want to read about this now, or you have had a recent death in the family and are in the thick of it, you may wish to skip this column. However, if you are having that nice sunny day and there’s a spring in your step and your abs are worked out and you feel gooood, this is just exactly the right time to contemplate your own death and get it sorted, filed and forgotten and go out to play in the sunshine, feeling all of the above plus virtuous verging on smug. Please note that what follows is not legal advice, I’m not a lawyer. Legalities vary in various countries and you need to take account of what the law says where you are reading this. All I offer is the benefit of experience that I did not have a year ago, which I pass on for you to make of it what you may.
The very first thing to do is to make a will. As a rule of thumb, in many countries, dying without a will will cause problems. In some countries the government of the day will assume that if you don’t wish to leave your possessions to your relatives, you will certainly wish to leave them to the state. If you love politicians (hands up, who loves politicians?) (?) (???????) (I’m not surprised, neither do I.) and wish to enrich them, poor things, by all means die intestate (I.E. without a will) and let them get their hands on your hard earned. If, however, you wish to prevent this, even if you wish to leave it all to the nearest dog’s home, you have to say so and make the will watertight. You can do this by writing and signing with witnesses and letting everyone know that the form, which can be found for free in doctor’s offices, some banks and post offices and all over the Internet (put ‘free will form’ into a search engine), has been left in such and such a place. Sometimes low-cost will writers advertise themselves locally. I used this service and have had such a will for some time. I am, however, planning to amend this as soon as possible, in the light of several considerations becoming evident in my current circumstances.
Using a solicitor to write your will has several advantages. Cost is not one of them but because this is such a common use of solicitors they should have no trouble in furnishing any enquirer with a scale of fees for will writing and sticking to it. Expect, for a bona fide, qualified solicitor that the cost will be measured, at least, in hundreds of pounds. You can find low cost options starting at just around a hundred pounds. Again a bit of research with a search engine should help you with the choice that’s right for you and there are specialist sites run by reputable agencies, such as the Law Society, that will point you in the right direction and help you find someone qualified. One of the benefits of using a solicitor is that the will will be registered and appear on www.certainty.co.uk in the UK and on comparable websites elsewhere. Certainty is the National Will register in the UK. It contains the latest (and therefore legal) version of all registered wills. This is helpful in the case of disputes and because people are inclined to change their views and their wills.
I have had immense difficulty with my father’s will. Having made several wills with local solicitors and notified me of them, which information I kept carefully and could access instantly, he then succumbed to a nice young chap who turned up at the door and didn’t bother telling me. The nice young chap was from a firm of accountants who had got wind of a change in the law that meant the survivor of a marriage would have to pay extra tax. The accountants were touting a plan putting half of the assets of a marriage into a trust fund to avoid paying the tax. My father, who had been self employed for most of his life and hated the tax man with the deep passion of anyone who has spent large chunks of living time filling in self employment tax returns, was keen to give the tax man as little as possible and therefore engaged the visiting accountant to write his will.
Mistake number one. Accountants do accounts, solicitors do wills. Asking the wrong expert for advice will lead to trouble as surely as evening leads to night. A couple of years later the law changed, rendering all the effort expended to make the most complex and difficult will ever seen for a person of modest means, unnecessary. Unfortunately, the accountants, having made their money, forgot to inform their client that the law had changed, that is of course, if they noticed; why should they, they were only interested in the money, though not sufficiently to spot that they could have made more by keeping their client informed.
The first thing to do when contemplating making a will is to go to the right expert, a lawyer or solicitor or the equivalent person who deals with the law on a daily basis and get their advice and pay for it and ask them to inform you when changes in the law affect your will. I have never known a professional with the law to be shy about asking for more money because an update is required. This is your guarantee that whenever you die your will is up to date and valid and that what you wish to be done will be done and the finished item will be easily found by your survivors by looking for the website. Moreover if you have made it the responsibility of the solicitor to update you, if the law changes and they don’t inform you, you can sue them, which would keep everyone busy for a while.
My parents and I had had a falling out, a thing that happens in families. We subsequently got back together, another thing that happens, but my father did not amend his will accordingly. At the hospital, the day after he died, my cousin arrived, believing, as he had put some effort into visiting my parents lately, that he would be my father’s main inheritor, to the extent that he even told me on the phone that I was not my parent’s next of kin, he was. He then hassled me to my parent’s house and he and his wife insisted on searching the house for the will, which his wife found and separated from the envelope that said it was for me. They read it very eagerly, looking for the money.
My husband spoke to an acquaintance who works in probate. This sort of behaviour is par for the course, apparently.
Allow me to spell this out in words of one syllable.
When you die the people who really love you will be too upset to defend themselves and the people who did not really love you will only be able to see the money. They cannot help themselves. If you are in doubt about this you only have to reach for the nearest newspaper to access the column of latest wills. It is inescapable that for people who do not really care about you, the minute you die you turn into a heap of money. It happens before their eyes as an involuntary bit of magic. The next thing that happens is that they wonder how much of the money they can get their hands on. Subsequently the people who really love you will be wondering how to afford the best funeral ever to give you a good send off and the people who don’t will be considering such a funeral to be a dreadful waste of their money.
Do not believe, especially if you are old or in poor health, the people who turn up at your bedside regularly with small boxes of cheap chocolates and endless protestations of their deep regard and love for you, approval of all you do and strong coincidence with your taste and opinions. If you are not sure, say something outrageous and watch them change their tack. Those who sail in your wake may well be hoping to fill their sails with your financial wind. If still unsure, I’d recommend reading Charles Dickens, who had a lot to say about it. Start with Great Expectations and read on.
Don’t think that your family are all lovely and immune from this stuff. When I wrote about going up empty handed (see below) I really meant it. Money is dangerous, it bends the truth. I consider myself to be a reasonably well developed soul. I have lived a bit, I know how things work. Yet I still find myself, looking at the cost of caring properly for my demented mother, inclined to favour the lower cost options. I know myself. My better self and soul will triumph and I will find the best solution for my mother. I will do it despite her being herself, despite her being the person who regularly abused me when I was a child, despite her having arranged to kill off my second child by giving all the baby equipment away, despite her having locked me up and starved me, kept me from the university place I’d earned to make me go to a local college because it was cheaper and so on and so forth. She has been a bad, spoiled, wilful person. But now she is an old sick lady in need so I make sure I put the past behind me and concentrate each day on the day ahead and how best to help her.
But don’t think I haven’t wrestled myself to arrive at this conclusion. I have a bit but not too much because I am basically on the side of the angels and always will be. However, I have had brief dark thoughts, not least engendered by how much out of pocket I already am because of the cost of living in two places at once over that last year. I am on my uppers and have just worked out that caring for my mother with carers in her own home for a year will cost upwards of £100,000. Yes that’s one hundred thousand pounds for a year. A few years of that would see all the money gone, the house re-mortgaged and everything in it sold to meet the costs.
This is not an uncommon scenario. Anyone with a relative in sheltered housing or an old folk’s home will have done these sums, you have to. I know of people living off their children and with their children, my in-laws did it thirty years ago, saying comfortably to their son that it would all be his when they died. Then my father-in-law remarried and we never got the £16,000 it cost us to care for her that we were in debt by.
So the second thing that is apparent, is that you really have to tackle the problem of your lovely little self going gaga or crippled or horribly diseased with bits dropping off and the cost to your relatives of dealing with that. Reflect upon the possibilities. Your will should reflect your reflection.
It is the truth that advances in medical science over the past fifty years mean that few of us will die a Dickensian death, where we cough fitfully for a chapter and then conk out in a four poster bed or under the nearest railway bridge. If you are reading this on a computer (check, yes, you are!) the likelihood is that even if you get something nasty, such as cancer, medical science will keep you going and having to be cared for for a lot longer than a chapter. It could be lots of chapters. If you are in a settled relationship for many years there could be two of you needing care.
Someone will have to arrange this. Someone may have to sell your house to get finance to keep you in a home. Someone may have to arrange for you to be cared for in your own home. If you are very ill, it won’t be you. It will be someone else. What you have to think about and make provision for, is who that someone will be. And then you have to take account of how disrupting this will be to their life. You need to work out how much it will cost them to do it, it will not, for sure be free. Travelling may be involved. Expensive ready meals or catering may be involved at the very least.
Because my mother is a first class snob, she required me to do the caring in suitable clothes ‘In case a gentleman caller suddenly came to the door’. You may think she is living in the past; old people generally do. Anyone who has to come into your house to help you on a daily or regular basis may have to fit in to make you happy. How much will it cost them to do it? You have to get really real about this. If your hippy, slobby son is going to be the one to do the caring, what will that mean? If your fast-track, glass-ceiling daughter is going to have to give up some time at her job to care for you what will that mean? Without doubt you will become a burden to someone if you become lengthily and terminally ill, there’s no getting past it. Unless you are rich enough to set all your relatives free by having paid carers from day one of your illness, you need to make provision for whoever is going to help you, to be able to do it.
One of the inescapable realities of wills is that the more complex they are the longer they will take to enact. My father’s will has only just gone through probate, nearly a year after he died.
Part of the reason for this is that a cousin who was executor of the will engaged a solicitor at the other end of the country, near to her, to help, needless to say at considerable cost to my mother. The solicitor, not knowing or caring about either of my parents has taken great pains to write all and sundry letters at £100 a time, because she sees this as a wonderful money-making opportunity and is spinning it out as long as possible.
Therefore, I would suggest, the most sensible person to engage as a solicitor, having checked their qualifications, is the solicitor who will be able to advise the beneficiaries and all other interested parties, and who they will be able to consult directly, and who is the solicitor who drew the whole thing up and who knows what you really wanted.
The next thing to do is to keep the will simple, because the simpler it is, the faster it goes through, the more quickly the people who are out of pocket by helping you are recompensed and the less they will hate you.
It would be well worth taking the advice of a solicitor, where there are two of you and the money is left first to the survivor of the marriage or partnership and, on the death of the remaining partner to the children, to make money immediately available to the children who are going to be the carers for the survivor, after the first death.
Even if you have the decency to expire quickly in the four poster bed and your surviving spouse retains every marble they ever had and continues shale walking with a two stone back pack until just the day before they die, there will still be costs for those gathered round the four poster. Those gathered will undoubtedly retain warmer feelings toward your surviving spouse if your demise has not pitched them into the realm of soup kitchens and charity clothing bundles.
When this current situation is over, my husband and I intend to get a solicitor to make a sum of money, which we will put in a special account, immediately available to our son on the death of either of us, so that he can help the other of us without having to consider if he can afford to do so. And then, if the survivor does go gaga and have to be expensively incarcerated in a facility at least he will have had something on account.
Where there is more than one child of a marriage, there needs to be a family discussion about who will do the caring and the arrangements made accordingly. I know of several families split by the horrible fact that the one doing all the work is still only going to get a quarter of what’s left.
A will is not the place to be a clever clogs, or distribute largesse to all and sundry, or give threepence here and tuppence there. A will is a place to be above all things, practical and even-handed. You cannot second guess how people will turn out and reward them accordingly. People change. You cannot control the future from your grave, if you could, you’d be the first who managed to do that. When my mother rewrote her will, leaving bits here and there, which is her right to do, I begged and was granted a sentence or two stating that if the money was needed for her care in her lifetime, then all bets were off. The solicitor managed this easily, he’d obviously been asked before, as a will is the place to make sure all your debts are paid. It’s not the place to settle scores or belatedly suck up to people, by the time you’re dead people will already know what they think about you and you really cannot change their opinion for the better, though you can change it for the worse.
It’s your stepping off point for going up empty handed.
*Nearest & Dearest, or Neediest & Difficultest, depending on your dependants.
Please note that all of the above is my take on things, prompted by my own experience. The intention of it is to benefit you by getting you thinking. As I mentioned, solicitors do legal stuff, consult them about legal stuff. I just do writing and art.
Coming soon – The Joy of Funerals!
JaneLaverick.com – the way of the empty hand.