Willful Neglect

“If you die without signing your will in this country, you leave chaos behind you. The lack of clarity intensifies bereavement and pitches family members into a cauldron of legal dictates. Bank accounts are frozen, cards unusable, cash inaccessible. If your partner dies intestate, it makes normal life almost impossible to retrieve….”   Danae Brook

Danae Brook is a widow whose husband died without a will.  And while she is referencing the laws of the United Kingdom, this experience is not limited to just those whose spouses die intestate (without a will) in the UK.   Rather, this chaos is what many survivors experience across the globe when their spouse dies without a will.

A common misconception that married couples and even common-law couples have is that if their spouse / partner dies, the assets left behind will automatically flow to them.  Depending on the jurisdiction in which you live, and each jurisdiction can have vastly different rules of succession, this simply is not the case.  When it comes to dying intestate, some places treat married and common-law partners differently.  For instance, in Ontario, the Succession Law Reform Act (SLRA) governs how property is to be distributed.   Under that act, a common-law partner does not have automatic property rights and in the absence of being able to prove dependency, a common-law partner can be left with nothing from their partner’s estate.   While in Ontario a legally married spouse does have some automatic property rights, they may not inherit everything.  For instance, if a married couple has two children (regardless of age) and one of the spouses passes away without a will, the surviving spouse inherits the first $200,000 and receives just 1/3 of the remaining estate value with the children splitting the remainder.   Very quickly, a survivor can go from thinking they will be okay to facing a life without adequate financial resources.   Danae shared her experience in an article published in the UK’s Daily Mail in October of 2016 as a way of informing others about what happens if your affairs aren’t in order.  Hopefully, her words can inspire you to ensure you (and your partner) have an up-to-date will, that a survivor will be okay and those who are important to you don’t suffer the way she has.

“Robin and I had known each other for more than 50 years, been together for 20, and married for 14.…

It was totally unexpected. We were in our 50s, divorced from previous partners, single and not looking for anything more – but this was an electric, love-at-second-sight moment that was transformative for both of us. At the time I wrote (in YOU), ‘Finding the love of your life in the autumn of your life is a strange and humbling experience.’ It was also exhilarating, and a handful.

We had three grown-up sons each – six between us – and five grandchildren, but neither of us could imagine life without the other, so we lived together for the next 20 wonderful years…

I look back on this as an idyll – one that was ripped away from us by fate, unexpected death and ignorance of the law… It is a lesson in not taking happiness for granted.

Robin trained in the City as a financial analyst. He managed our money and it never occurred to me that all our practical arrangements were not entirely in order. Like many wives, I simply left such matters to him. What I didn’t know was that when you marry, or remarry, any previous will you have made becomes invalid – and your new spouse does not automatically inherit your estate.

Robin had failed to rewrite his will when he married me. When it became obvious how ill he was in those dreadful early weeks of 2014, he rewrote it, but its completion was delayed by a quibble with the lawyers over a particular clause and he died the night before he was due to sign it.

Until that point, intestacy was not even a word in my vocabulary, but I discovered its full meaning only too quickly after Robin’s death. If you die without signing your will – no matter that your family and your lawyers know exactly what your wishes are – all your choices are null and void. Your property and your money become subject to the rules of intestacy, and these are so densely draconian you will probably never fully understand them.

For me, it meant I had to leave my country life behind. The home that Robin and I had shared so happily for more than two decades (and which had been in his family much longer) was put up for sale. I struggled to be allowed to stay in it just long enough to gather together my personal effects or go through his. 

There was barely time to bid farewell to our possessions, our books, our chickens. I had to leave my roses to wither while the buyer appropriated my business and I moved my life to our London flat…

We had only occasionally, fleetingly, thought about our wills. Before a car journey, maybe, or when planning a flight. Our priority after our marriage should have been to put our legal affairs in order but, busy as our lives were, this was too easy to overlook. We felt strong together. Unconditional love was our talisman – and we failed to face our mortality.

During the weeks of his illness, Robin had been open with his family about what he wished to put in his will, and we knew there were some who wanted more and were not managing their expectations well. He had warned me people would have different agendas. He knew before I did how it might be for me when he was gone. 

But we found it so hard to accept it might be the end of his life that his will – that piece of paper – became like a gravestone we were not yet ready to acknowledge. Because of that, we left it too late.

Six weeks after the night we were told he had cancer, Robin died of a cardiac arrest, his newly written will still unsigned. Within days of his death I found myself on what felt like a battlefield, being fired at from all sides. His best-laid plans were in ruins, and so was I…

The day after Robin died I sat with my sons, stepsons and my brother in our living room, and read them his wishes. I said the only thing that made sense to me was to follow the directions he had so painstakingly left. Robin’s intentions were entirely clear.

They did not say no immediately. They asked for time to think about it. I didn’t even wonder what there was to think about; it was so obvious that what you do when someone dies is what they wish. I could never have predicted what it would feel like to encounter a different view.…

There was misunderstanding and conflict among the family, and my husband’s estate was inevitably put in the hands of lawyers to administer – the goodbye kiss to any of his money that might be left after mortgage companies and HM Revenue and Customs had taken their dues.…

I am still enmeshed in legal bondage; it has taken two and a half years for mediation with family members to only partly resolve the situation. I cannot access the remainder of my legacy or move forward with my life. Without realising it, my husband and I let an abyss open up by neglecting to take care of our affairs adequately, and I can’t bear the idea of others going through this torture.

Day after day comes a tidal wave of lawyers’ letters relating to death certificates, property conveyancing, tenancies, inheritance tax, mortgages, administrators, beneficiaries, bank accounts – the unavoidable mechanisms of bureaucracy, of money.…

I remain in touch with one of Robin’s sons, and his daughter is best friends with my granddaughter – a great comfort. But my relationship with the others, and their children, has probably been irreparably damaged where it could have been a source of solace. Robin’s other beautiful grandchildren – including his new grandson, born weeks before he died – could have been part of my life, too. Instead, we all lose.…

In law, ignorance is not a defense. Neither is it in life. 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.

Make a will. Sign it. Otherwise, what will happen is what happened to me.”

 

To ensure your affairs are in order and your loved ones adequately provided forgiven the legislation applicable in your jurisdiction, seek advice from a lawyer and your financial advisor.  Danae’s full story can be read following this link:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/you/article-3823174/His-unsigned-left-plans-ruins-widow-s-life-plunged-uncertainty-husband-died-without-signing-will.html

 

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