Every summer there is nothing that Sophia, 67, enjoys more than welcoming her ten grandchildren on Sundays for a leisurely barbecue followed by a swim in the family pool in Cornwall.
The retired civil servant’s grandchildren, aged five to 22, all call her Nona, a nod to Sophia’s Greek heritage. Yet only half of them are her biological grandchildren. The others are her partner David’s grandchildren. Sophia’s husband, who ran his own electrical company, died suddenly in 2010. A decade ago, she met David, now 65, and nine months after meeting, the couple moved into David’s home together.
‘My estate, which includes two properties I rent out, is valued at £600,000, but even though I’ve known the younger of my five step-grandchildren since they were babies, they won’t be getting anything from me when I do eventually pass,’ she says.
‘I love them to bits and I treat them exactly as I do my biological grandchildren. I shower them with love and affection, spending the same on their Christmas and birthday presents. I am just as happy having any of them over for teepee slumber parties or camp-outs in the garden. But I promised my late husband that our estate in its entirety would go to our grandchildren.
‘Of course there are times I feel guilty about this decision. The world is a tough place for the younger generation and they need all the financial help they can get.
The consumer guide Which? reports a rise in the number of wills being challenged, with one firm of solicitors noting a 111 per cent increase in enquiries about challenging wills in one year. Stock image used
‘I appreciate that this means that I will be leaving my biological grandchildren on a more solid financial basis than David’s, but I feel honour-bound to respect my late husband’s wishes.
‘Fortunately, none of the grandchildren has ever asked me about what I intend to leave them. And if they do, then I will jolly well tell a big fat fib because when they do find out I won’t be here.’
So is Sophia’s decision the right one, or could it eventually split her new family in two?
Nothing causes antagonism quite like a will that is perceived to be unfair, of course. The consumer guide Which? reports a rise in the number of wills being challenged, with one firm of solicitors noting a 111 per cent increase in enquiries about challenging wills in one year.
Last year, a survey by Direct Line Insurance found that almost a quarter of us would be prepared to go to court to dispute a will if we disagreed with it.
Chartered clinical psychologist Dr Marianne Trent, author of The Grief Collective, says it is often the ‘surprising’ will left by the woman who fulfils the ‘matriarchal role’ in the family that ends up causing the most problems.
‘Money offers a certain type of lifestyle and security,’ she says. ‘Blended families can get used to a sense of belonging and entitlement even if the funds don’t come from their biological relatives.
‘So when the will isn’t popular with all family members, because some are left out, it can lead to conflict and bitterness. The problem is, this can ripple down the generations, leading to long-lasting family rifts.’
Last year, a survey by Direct Line Insurance found that almost a quarter of us would be prepared to go to court to dispute a will if we disagreed with it. Stock image used
Yet Sophia, who has three adult daughters, is adamant that her plans for who gets what are not up for discussion or negotiation. Indeed, the only person who is aware of her wishes is her partner David.
‘David used to work in construction and has a slightly smaller estate than I do,’ she says. ‘His is worth £500,000 and he will leave it to whoever he wants.
‘When we got together, he knew I was a widow and that I’d promised my husband our estate would be passed on to our grandchildren. He has always respected my decision.
Mentally, they may already have started to bank the money
‘I didn’t include my children in the will because I have helped them out financially already, with everything from deposits for homes to annual family holidays together. They are all on the property ladder, whereas my grandchildren are not. That will be my gift to them.’
Sophia says her emotions are not clouded when it comes to her step-grandchildren.
‘They will be looked after by David and even if he didn’t have anything to leave to his side, I still wouldn’t include them in my will. I hardly ever see the older step-ones so I have pretty neutral feelings towards them. They are making their own way in the world — and good luck to them.
‘The teenagers and younger ones I do see and have known since they were little, and at times my decision does tug at my heartstrings. But they won’t see a penny from me.
If they ask me, I’ll tell a big fat fib – because when they do find out I won’t be here
‘I love being a grandma and I was very involved in my grandchildren’s lives — at times I was more like a second mum to some of them and it’s why I feel it is my duty to include them, and only them, in my will.’
When we make a will, the decision is usually a very pragmatic and unemotional one, says Dr Marianne Trent. Stock image used
When we make a will, the decision is usually a very pragmatic and unemotional one, says Dr Marianne Trent. By contrast, when that will is read, emotions are often very high, with sadness and grief colouring everyone’s reaction to it.
‘People who might have already started to mentally bank the money, or have even already spent it, can be left feeling, ‘Aren’t I good enough?’ ‘ says Dr Trent. ‘That’s when paranoia and suspicion set in.’
Retired family doctor Sarah, 74, has a son and daughter, and two grandchildren, one of whom is a step-grandson. Her estate is valued at £750,000 and is mainly tied up in property on the Wirral and savings.
I have no posh holidays or cars — but I have a clear conscience
‘When my youngest daughter married her husband, he already had a five-year-old son,’ she says. ‘I went out of my way to reassure her that I would treat him no differently from my other grandson and over the years I have been true to my word.
‘They got the same presents for Christmas and the same amount of money for their birthdays. I have been scrupulously fair.’
So why isn’t her step-grandson in her will?
‘The truth is, his mother hasn’t been kind to my daughter over the years, and it has pained me to see my daughter’s stepson siding with his mother. I’ve kept my counsel but it has been hard witnessing how he treats my daughter.’
With both boys now in their 20s, Sarah discussed her decision with friends before seeing her solicitor to put her wishes in place.
‘There was a mixed reaction. Some think I should leave him something to keep the peace — but why? I’m sure I’m never in his thoughts. I never receive birthday or Christmas cards, for example.
‘My daughter still bends over backwards for him, paying his rent during leaner times of work. I can’t bear to see how he abuses her generosity.
HOW TO STOP A WILL DIVIDING YOUR FAMILY
UK law firm Fladgate specialises in wills, trusts and estate planning. Partner Helena Luckhurst advises:
- In England and Wales we are generally free to leave our money as we please. But if anyone can argue that they were financially dependent on you for their maintenance and that the money tap has now been turned off since your death, your estate may face a costly claim if you don’t make reasonable financial provision for that person in your will.
- Make sure you talk your will through with a solicitor, who will objectively point out the pros and cons of your decisions and make a written record. This can help to prevent arguments after your death that you didn’t understand the consequences of your will, or that your will choices were not your own.
- Don’t be offended if the solicitor suggests you obtain a medical opinion at the time of writing your will. This can be used later to demonstrate that you had legal capacity to make a will when you did.
- Make a will, even if it is emotionally difficult. Don’t die without a will and leave it to your family to sort out themselves. This can be very messy and costly.
- Don’t make promises about your money that you don’t intend to honour in your will.
- Do not underestimate the power of a will to set people apart. Wills can be used as weapons. Conversely, wills that are put together wisely can unite people.
- While people are perfectly entitled to leave their money as they see fit, it does come with responsibility. You might want to think, ‘How do I want to be remembered?’
- Is it sensible to treat step-family members differently? Sometimes the promotion of family harmony above your personal feelings can unite a family after your death.
‘I haven’t dithered over my decision at all. While I have never interfered in my daughter’s relationship with her stepson, this way everyone will know how I have felt about his behaviour over the years.
‘And no, my children aren’t aware of the contents of my will because I don’t want to poke a hornet’s nest and deal with the fallout while I’m still alive.’
Dr Marianne Trent, however, believes it is better to be open about the contents of wills while you are still alive.
‘If it feels too difficult, then get a mediator or therapist involved,’ she says. ‘The benefit of having these conversations before you die is that all loose ends are tied up.
‘Yes, it’s your property, your estate and it’s up to you what you do with it. But telling relatives what those wishes are now can minimise the eventual impact and avoid family conflict in the heat of the moment later.’
That impact can be devastating, says Claire, 52, from the Midlands. ‘I had a lovely relationship with my late step-gran,’ she says. ‘I never knew my dad’s mum because she died when he was a child, so when Dad remarried I was 14 when I got a grandma too.
‘Over the years, our relationship was a lovely bonus to my life. When I was a teenager, whenever my father and stepmum were away, she would check in on me while I was looking after their house. As an adult with a busy career in marketing, it goes without saying I never forgot her birthday and she was always remembered at Christmas.
‘When she was diagnosed with a brain tumour, I was the stable grandchild during the last year of her life. She couldn’t drive or do basic things at home, such as care for herself, clean or cook. I helped my stepmum do this because I work flexible hours — happily, I might add — on a daily basis.’
But when it came to the reading of the will, Claire found there was no mention of her name. Yet her step-gran’s other ten grandchildren were each left a handsome four-figure sum, even though none of them, according to Claire, had helped care for their grandmother in her final year.
‘I will admit that at first I was hurt. I’d played a greater role in her life in her final year, taking her for weekly blood tests, making her life more comfortable.
‘It wouldn’t have changed my feelings for her, but it might have been nice to know beforehand. Transparency makes life easier for everyone.
‘Girlfriends have said I was mad for not making a noise and letting it be known that I was upset. Everyone knows of someone who has kicked up a stink and ends up receiving something, just to keep them quiet. The idea of doing that didn’t sit easily with me.
‘While I don’t have the posh holidays and fancy cars my cousins have enjoyed thanks to their inheritance, I do have a clear conscience. This whole episode has taught me one thing and it’s this: blood is absolutely thicker than water.’
Names have been changed.