An unsigned Will left a widow’s life in ruins

Deprivation of assets cases

A heartbreaking recollection in the Daily Mail last week highlights just how important it is to make sure your Will, and that of your partner if you have one, is signed, up to date, valid and effective.

The story is written by Danaë Brook, a widow who lost her husband Robin to advanced cancer two and a half years ago. The couple married later in life and were together for 20 years. Having married previously, they had three grown-up sons each – six between them – and five grandchildren. Aware of his ill health, Danaë’s husband had made a Will but there was an ‘quibble’ regarding a particular clause and Robin died the night before he was due to sign it.

The heartbreak of losing her partner, best friend and companion of the last 20 years was intensified by the legal and financial turmoil that followed. Without a valid Will, Robin’s estate would be distributed according to the laws of intestacy.

“We felt strong together …and we failed to face our mortality”

Danaë remembers that her life – and that of her husband – was so busy, that they had barely thought about their wills. Whilst she now admits their priority should have been to put their legal affairs in order, she recognises that it was easily overlooked. She explains that together as a couple, Danaë and Robin felt strong – and did not want to face their mortality.

When Robin fell ill, he made his wishes known to his family. Sadly this wasn’t sufficient for them to be binding – it does not matter if you have made your wishes clear, or even drafted a Will with a lawyer. The law has the final word, and all your wishes are null and void. Both Robin and Danaë were aware that not everyone in the family agreed with him, and some wanted more. This became clear after Robin passed away, just six weeks after he was told of his prognosis.

Danaë sat with her sons, her stepsons and her brother the day after Robin died and read them his wishes. They asked for time to think about it. A day or two later they confirmed they did not intend to follow Robin’s wishes and planned to go down the intestacy route instead.

No money to live on

When someone dies intestate, all their money is frozen. Accounts are immobilised. From then on, the laws of intestacy govern everything. Danaë’s bank were unsympathetic. She asked for a loan to live on until Robin’s estate was administered. They declined her request – despite the fact that she had been a customer for more than 40 years and on paper, she had considerable assets. She ended up selling some treasured items to give her enough to get by – although a lot of their possessions were ‘brown furniture’ which despite being antique mahogany, oak or walnut, does not fetch true value due to it being out of fashion. She then had to pay to store everything else so that their home could be sold, enabling the release of the capital in it – but found that many of their paintings had been wildly overvalued and paying to store such items for sentimental value alone was insanely expensive. With conflict in the family over who should get what, there would be no fast resolution – and the fees and expenses soared.

Usually if you die intestate, your spouse or civil partner inherits any chattels you own – including, for example, furniture, cars, paintings and other household items. They also inherit half the remaining estate. The rest goes to the children. However, even though they refused to abide by their father’s clear wishes, Danaë generously decided to allow Robin’s sons to take some of the chattels including a chest of family silver and certain items they wanted to keep – together with books, letters and memorabilia. Despite this, and although she was perfectly entitled, his sons were horrified that she had sold a few items to get by.

Today: Still “enmeshed in legal bondage”

Danaë says that still today she is “enmeshed in legal bondage”. The past two and a half years have been spent in mediation with family members, and they have only partly resolved the situation. She cannot access the remainder of the legacy she is entitled to, or move forward with her life. Danaë admits that, without realising it, she and her husband “let an abyss open up by neglecting to take care of our affairs adequately” – and she says she cannot bear the idea of others going through the same torture. Every day she gets a “tidal wave” of lawyers’ letters, relating to death certificates, administrators, beneficiaries, inheritance tax, bank accounts, property conveyancing, tenancies and mortgages – what Danaë calls “the unavoidable mechanisms of bureaucracy”.

Perhaps worst still, her relationship with some of the family has been irreparably damaged when it should have been a source of comfort. Although she is friends with one of Robin’s sons and his daughter is best friends with her granddaughter, she has no relationship with the other family members – including Robin’s new grandson, born weeks before he died.

Danaë’s situation is not unique. According to a YouGov survey, 62% of British people currently have no valid will. Another common feature of the story is how quickly Robin passed. He was apparently fit and healthy – a regular tennis player well into his 70s who, with Danaë and his dog, would walk for miles every day.  His only symptoms a few months before his death were not being able to sleep well, and a cough that hurt his chest.

She urges people to make a Will so the same thing does not happen to them. “People who love one another usually intend each other to mourn in peace, ideally in the home they shared. Now I know that unless wishes are laid out unequivocally in legal terms, and correctly witnessed, that won’t happen.”

Intestacy: the law

If you die and you don’t have a valid will, the law of intestacy applies.

If you were married or in a civil partnership at the time of your death, your spouse or civil partner will benefit from your estate.

If you have no children, your spouse or civil partner will inherit your entire estate.

If you have children, your spouse or civil partner will inherit all the chattels/personal belongings, plus the first £250,000 of your estate.

The rest of the estate will be split 50 – 50 between your spouse or civil partner and any children – or their direct descendants if they have predeceased you.

If you have a partner but you are not married, the partner will not receive anything under the rules of intestacy – unless you co-own your property as ‘beneficial joint tenants’ (less common these days, particularly where couples are unmarried) in which case they will automatically inherit your share of it. Your assets will pass to your children, or grandchildren. If you do not have any direct descendants, your parents will inherit next, then your sisters and brothers, and then any other relatives.

If you have no surviving relatives, your whole estate goes to the Crown.

Note that if you get married, any Will that you made prior to the marriage is automatically revoked unless it is made in contemplation of a specific marriage (see the ‘Marriage’ section of our article: ‘Do I need to change my Will?

To make a valid Will, you must be 18 or over and of sound mind. Your Will must be made in writing, signed and properly witnessed.

Note that it is also important to consider what happens to your estate after your death. If you leave it all to your partner and they need care, the Local Authority can take your hard earned assets and use them for care fees. This can be avoided if you create a trust in your Will.

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Credits: Original story published in the Daily Mail, 9th October 2016 ‘His unsigned will left his plans – and me – in ruins’: How a widow’s life was plunged into uncertainty after her husband died without signing his will‘, by Danaë Brook.

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