WE ARE well advised in St Matthew’s Gospel not “to lay up treasure upon earth”. But it is inevitable, when we die, that some of our earthly possessions will be left behind for others to sort out.
Although Jesus warned that “moth and rust corrupt, and thieves break in to steal”, he did not forbid Christians from arranging their affairs in such a way that their surviving assets could best benefit others.
Indeed, it is an obligation of faith, if possible, to provide for one’s dependants after death, as the dying Jesus demonstrated when he commended the Blessed Virgin Mary to the care of St John.
On both secular and religious grounds, therefore, it is good practice to make a will, and leave an estate in good order.
Two years ago, a survey by Prudential and the financial-advice website Unbiased (www.unbiased.co.uk) found that almost 60 per cent of the adult population in Britain had not written a will. Although many young people delay making a will, thinking it will be something to do later, 36 per cent of over-55s, surprisingly, have no legally binding instructions drawn up. The Law Commission says that 40 per cent of people who die each year die intestate.
SCARGILL HOUSE, a Christian community and retreat centre in the Yorkshire Dales, has this year been running a scheme to encourage people to make a will. It has been using the National Free Wills Network (NFWN) of solicitors who undertake to draw up wills free of charge. It is the charities involved in the scheme — about 70, currently — who pay the fees (set at a special discounted rate), and who, long-term, hope to benefit from legacies that they might not otherwise have had. Solicitors benefit by meeting clients who might want to use their services later, in other ways.
At Scargill House, the community member with special responsibility for fund-raising, the Revd Paul Reily, says that deferring writing a will is a common trait. “It is seen as important, but non-urgent. But we all know of elderly people who have died intestate, and then the way they hoped, or wished, their estate to be used after their death doesn’t happen.” In those circumstances, all their money might go to a distant relative, and not to a favourite charity. If no beneficiaries can be found, the money ends up in the Exchequer.
“For each one of us, our most important legacy results from who we were in life, what we did, and how we touched others’ lives. However, as good stewards we have a duty to leave our financial affairs in order. If we leave a house to our children that’s in a mess, they have to clear it out, which is not fair on them. Similarly with messy financial affairs,” Mr Reily says.
ABOUT 750 solicitors across the UK are members of the NFWN. Now in its tenth year, members have written well over 10,000 wills, of which 70 per cent have included legacies to charities.
Alternatively, every November, under the “Will Aid” banner, participating solicitors offer to write a basic will, free of charge, but invite clients to make a voluntary donation. A sum of £95 for a single basic will is suggested, and the money goes to nine benefiting charities, including Christian Aid. A solicitor involved can be found on the Will Aid website.
istockphotoSowing seeds in the young: leaving a legacy for a charity is one way of working for God’s Kingdom long after deathIn practice, most people who have used special will-writing schemes have been older people with straightforward estates to leave. Some have been rewriting wills that, since their children left home, have become outdated.
The importance of drawing up a will with legal advice is especially true when it comes to younger people with dependent families. The laws of inheritance recognise spouses, civil partners, and blood relations; today, however, many families are complicated networks of relationships, including partners who are not married, and also stepchildren. For their benefit, a legally watertight will is essential.
DIY will forms are available, but seeing a solicitor and explaining your wishes concentrates the mind. As a neutral adviser, the solicitor can politely ask the tough questions that need to be faced. Who is willing and able to sort out your affairs after your death? Will there be debts to clear? Have adequate provisions been made for the care of any children or stepchildren under 18? Might a divorced spouse have a claim on the estate? What life-insurance policies exist, and where are the documents kept?
Special care has to be taken with passing property on if it is co-owned, as there is an important difference between being “joint tenants” or “tenants in common”.
THERE are also hypothetical questions to be raised and allowed for in the drafting of a will. “If your daughter dies before you, do you want all of her share to go to her husband and stepchildren?”, a solicitor might ask.
A solicitor can also advise on how the final sum to be left can be distributed. There can be specified legacies of money or property, or the money can be divided into shares and the shares distributed to family, friends, and charities. Depending on the size of the estate, a £1000 specified legacy might be worth more or less than, say, a five-per-cent share.
Once complete, a signed copy can be kept by the solicitor, as well as one at home.
People living alone, for whom a dog or cat is a main companion, can also include instructions for a pet to be cared for. The RSPCA runs a “Home for Life” scheme, and undertakes to care for a pet and find a new home.
The law relating to wills dates back to Victorian days, and the Law Commission says that it is out of step with the modern world. It has drawn up proposals for change — which might even lead to electronic wills in the future — and has opened a public consultation. “The law is unclear, outdated, and could even be putting people off altogether,” the Law Commission states.
“Even when it’s obvious what someone wanted, if they haven’t followed the strict rules, courts can’t act on it. And conditions which affect decision-making — like dementia — aren’t properly accounted for in the law.”
Anyone wishing to read the proposals in detail can look online at www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/wills. The deadline for comments is 10 November this year.
IN ROUND figures, some 30 per cent of charities’ voluntary income comes from legacies. For some, it is much higher. Many larger charities have a full-time member of staff dealing with legacies. The Salvation Army, the largest Christian charitable organisation, receives as much money — about £40 million a year — from legacies as from public donations.
Sometimes, a legacy arrives out of the blue. In 2012, a pensioner who had lived as a recluse left £60,000 towards the upkeep of Hatherleigh Parish Church, in Devon (News, 24 February 2012). In 2007, a Bristol millionaire, quite unexpectedly, left £500,00 to his local Methodist church.
Barely six per cent of people donate to charities through their wills, but, despite this low participation rate, legacies provide about £2.56 billion per annum to charities. “As the ‘baby-boomer’ generation continues to age, it is anticipated that this sum could increase to more than £5 billion by 2040 — and that is even without increasing the level of participation,” Daniel Jones, of Stewardship, a charity that specialises in advising Christian organisations on financial matters, says.
TWO years ago, research by the organisers of Christian Legacy Week found that, while Christians were much more likely to have made a will than those without a faith, only half of those wills included a gift to a Christian charity. The week involved seven large Christian charities, including CMS, and sought to encourage Christians to leave a bequest to a charity or church in their wills. The advancement of religion accounts for a mere four per cent of legacy gifts.
Leaving legacy gifts in your will, Mr Jones says, “is an incredibly powerful way of continuing to sow into God’s Kingdom on earth. Through your will, you can continue to be part of the healing, transformation, and hope that many Christian organisations bring to broken people and a broken world. We are called to exercise godly stewardship over all our resources, and that includes our estate.”
Even those who have carefully arranged their finances for their executors often omit to make any mention of their funeral arrangements. Funerals play an important part in helping friends and families cope with grief; so a carefully thought-out funeral plan can be a final act of kindness and a confident declaration of faith.
The website of the Association of Hospice and Palliative Care Chaplains (AHPCC) provides a useful checklist for chaplains who are planning a funeral with someone who is making plans for their own. It suggests that family and friends might also like to discuss the questions included on it.
The list asks practical questions, such as whether there is a preferred undertaker, and if a pre-payment plan is in existence. Is the body to be cremated or buried? If the latter, has a plot been arranged, and is there a certificate?
Other questions concern the officiant: does that person know what is expected of him or her, what style of service should be held, and what music played? What Bible or other readings should be included? Should there be flowers and/or charity donations, and, if donations, which charities should benefit?
The checklist can be signed and dated, but does not, the AHPCC points out, have any legal status, although in most cases families want to respect a deceased’s wishes. The checklist concludes: “Please also note that you can change anything at any time; but don’t forget to tell everyone who needs to know.”
THE president of the AHPCC, the Revd Karen Murphy, who is Chaplain of Weston Hospice, says: “When people get to the end, suddenly they are asking lots of big questions. People think they have a plan in life, and suddenly something happens they have not planned for.
“Most people at the end of their lives do it with great dignity: with most people, there is an ability to let go, if they have had a chance to express their wishes, and know everything is taken care of.”
Of course, not all instructions will be as colourful as those of the comedian Sean Hughes, who died recently, aged 51. He wrote a poem about his funeral, and, at his cremation, he said he wanted people to “Have a laugh, a dance, meet a loved one.”
Finally, he wanted his ashes scattered in the sawdust on the floor of a bar “where beautiful trendy people will trample over me . . . again”.
End-of-life decisions are not restricted to the disposition of assets. A person may wish to discuss medical treatment, and make his or her advance decisions known.
The Church of England’s national adviser on medical ethics, the Revd Dr Brendan McCarthy, says that people can stipulate what they do not want done to them, and, in almost all circumstances, this will be respected by the medical profession.
He advises caution, however, about making decisions for a future self. “The way you think now about a medical intervention is not how you might feel in, say, five years’ time.”
Advance decisions, he says, should be frequently reviewed and discussed with the next-of-kin; in the event that someone loses the capacity to make decisions or express their wishes, a trusted third party will then be aware of that person’s latest thinking.
CHRISTIANS have a history of preparing for a good death. The BCP talks of the dying putting their affairs in order, “for the better discharging of [the dying person’s] consience, and the quietness of his Executors”; and the Litany prays: “from sudden death, good Lord, deliver us.”
Today, some might think that dropping down and knowing nothing about it is the ideal. But the Anglican divine Richard Hooker wrote: “Let us which know what it
is to die as Absalom or Ananias and Sapphira died, let us beg of God that when the hour of rest is come, the patterns of our dissolution may be Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David. . . .” (Ecclesiastical Polity, V.46.1).
Whenever the inevitable end is to come, the knowledge that one’s remaining “treasures on earth” will be disposed of as straightforwardly as possible and to the benefit of others can be a comfort at any time.
FOR most people, writing a will is straightforward. But for some it has a deeper purpose than bequeathing money and possessions: it is used to try to right wrongs done in life, or to stir up strife in the family.
“People can be very spiteful some times,” Prebendary Nick Shutt says. He has seen this from both sides: as a former solicitor, and now as Rector of the West Dartmoor Mission Community, in Devon.
When he was practising as a solicitor, he would tell people to “keep it simple and don’t try and rule from the grave. I tried to dissuade people from tying up money and assets too much. Often, people would say: ‘But I don’t want them to spend it all.’ I’d say: ‘But you won’t know or care about it; let it go.’”
Richard Pennington is a member of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship and a Partner at Ward Gethin Archer Solicitors, in King’s Lynn, where he specialises in contentious probation cases. He agrees: “People do leave people out of their will deliberately, as they might want to stir up family conflict after they have gone. I had a case where a client had been badly hurt by someone else in their family; so wanted to cut them out.”
If the person writing the will is insistent on cutting someone out, the solicitor might suggest that he or she writes a letter that the executor can read out to the disappointed party. This can sometimes help the person who is not receiving a bequest come to terms with it, Mr Pennington says.
A HIGH-PROFILE case of a daughter left disappointed by a mother’s will is that of Heather Ilott and her mother, Melita Jackson.
The mother and daughter had been estranged for 25 years when Mrs Jackson died in 2004, leaving her entire £500,000 estate to three animal charities. Her daughter fought the will in the courts, but this year a Supreme Court overturned a previous decision by the Court of Appeal to award Mrs Ilott £163,000. She will now get only the £50,000 that the County Court originally decided was owed to her.
Mrs Ilott, who is in her fifties, had made an application under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 for “reasonable financial provision” from her mother’s estate.
Mr Pennington said that this case was unusual, and people writing wills should not be too concerned: the majority will not have them challenged in court. “In general, people left out of a will can’t put in a claim, though there are unusual cases. In most cases, people do not have a huge amount, and disputes can be settled amicably: for example, the charities who had been left money would agree to pay an amount to a disappointed child.
“If there are disputes over wills, solicitors will try mediation between parties first, and most litigation over wills is settled pre-court. Such a settlement is the best and cheapest outcome for clients.”
Additional reporting by Rebecca Paveley.