Yes, I know, it’s not a jolly subject. In fact it’s a subject many people don’t like to think about, let alone talk about or address with lawyers or family. Yet when we don’t, it can leave chaos for those left behind. I have witnessed adult children having to spend hours of their time going through the muddle that parents have left behind them and I read recently that the law courts are filling up with many more contested wills now that there is an increase in ‘blended’ families, all with their own ideas of who should get what.
This week we have seen the contrast of the fintech entrepreneur, Nick Hungerford, who sadly died aged 43, and the legendary singer, Aretha Franklin, who died a few years ago aged 76. I heard Nick Hungerford talk very movingly about how his diagnosis of cancer and prognosis of a limited life had given him the ‘opportunity’ to reflect on life and decide both how he wanted to live his last days but also consider the legacy he would leave behind. With this in mind, he has set up a charity for bereaved children in his two-year-old daughter Elizabeth’s name, www.elizabeth.org.
Aretha Franklin, on the other hand, did make a will, it seems, in 2010 but then her niece found another handwritten note under her sofa dated 2014 and the jury has just decided that the latest will should be regarded as her wishes. Yes, you read the word ‘jury’ and that means lawyers and money spent on sorting out who gets what. As I mentioned above, this is apparently happening more and more when a will is either unwritten or not clear and especially in blended families where it may be easy to perceive injustice in how an estate is parcelled out.
All the more important, then, to take the time and trouble to consider, as Nick Hungerford did, what one really wants one’s legacy to be and make sure it is written legally so that people can be clear and not fight. For I can imagine nothing more distressing than thinking of one’s children fighting about something after we have gone or for draining money in a legal battle, which is surely not what most people would want.
My friend and colleague, Shirley Conran, described me recently as her ‘death coach’, in an article on the death of Mary Quant in the Daily Mail. It’s an interesting label and was born, I believe, as a result of talking to her about how my mother had written a Living Will and had lodged the document with her doctor and lawyer and how this helped us to consider her best interests when she had a stroke in old age.
Indeed, I learnt much from the death of my parents, as my father died of cancer but had not spoken to my mother about the kind of funeral he wanted and my mother, in the depth of her grief, had to stop and consider what his wishes might have been – what hymns, what readings, etc. And so this in turn inspired my mother to think about her own death with greater care. She kept various quotes and handwritten thoughts about what she believed in, and what she did or didn’t want should she get ill, incapacitated or die. Between us we knew what she wanted and she and my father had left their estate equally between us and everything was neatly filed so that the aftermath of wrapping up the estate was as straightforward as it could be. I think we shall always be grateful to them for this.
Death can happen to us at any age. It holds no fears for me. We lost our first son Daniel of a sudden cot death when he was nine weeks old. I was 26 at the time and I guess my feeling since then has been that if he could do it then I can too. That’s not the problem. It is the process of dying that can give me concern and I have completed my Advanced Directive and registered my sons for both the Health and Wellfare and Financial Powers of Attorney. Why should they have to guess what I might want when they are having to deal with my illness or death, both emotionally and practically?
An inheritance is a gift and yet I see no point or benefit in making the contents of a will a surprise to be revealed by some lawyer after one’s death. Surely it helps one’s children to know roughly what they might inherit, where the money or assets are stored, what tax will be due, who gets what and what charities one wishes to support, so they can plan their lives with this in mind.
We don’t have to be given a prognosis of death, as Nick Hungerford was, in order to stop, reflect on our lives and on our death. For we are, despite what some other tech entrepreneurs are trying to prove in keeping themselves alive for ever, mortal and we owe it to ourselves and those we love to take the time to consider our mortality and plan accordingly.
Writing a will as soon as one becomes adult makes sense. Ensuring that if something happens to you as parents your children will be cared for emotionally and financially is essential, as I have been horrified by reading of cases of sudden death where the children have been taken into social care, despite there being aunts or grandparents alive, because their guardianship has not been adequately registered. If you are co-habiting, the division of childcare and an estate can be even more complicated and all the more reason to work out what is equitable while one is fit and well.
Covid taught us that death can occur suddenly at any age. My own feeling, as I guess you will know by now, is that good old adage ‘be prepared!’. Put things in order, consider what you want for your care if you become ill, what music you might wish to listen to when you are ill, or to be played at your funeral. Help others, so that they don’t have to second guess it all when under duress.
And now I had better go upstairs and try to sort out my filing system! With that in mind I wish anyone reading this good health and a long life.