Diary of a private client practitioner: 2nd June 2023

Are we in this together? Are we in this every step of the way?

Families and their fall outs are the bread and butter of disputes arising after death. However, in our line of work, when our clients seek us out, we are not the people that they want to see. Rather, we are the people they get in touch with when things go wrong, or they are at a crisis point.

It is never about us being there for our clients at the “right place at the right time”.

I have often heard the phrase that nothing is certain in life other than death and taxes. So, why is it that there is still so much stigma attached to us talking about death and sorting out our affairs? How we want to leave our assets following our death is not the easiest thing to talk about and can often happen so unexpectedly that it can leave a mess for those that are left behind.

This week, I have been thinking of some of the ways in which disputes arise after death, and how we can work to minimise these. However, if this was an easy answer, or just involved one thing to change, then our profession would have already implemented these. Unfortunately, the reality is that there isn’t just one reason underpinning why the disputes that come to us do.

One key factor that seems to be an issue is money and a growing sense of entitlement running down families. Money is often seen as the “root of all evil”. However, there are still many disputes I come across where our clients are still focused on “principle” rather than how much is in the pot to argue over. This is often the case when families end up with legal bills which outweigh the final reward.

So, what is it that gets so many people incensed and prepared to put their hands in their pockets to fund our fees? I am sure we all have our own examples of the causes over the years – here are just a few that I have come across:

  • A person having been submitted to historical sexual, physical, or mental abuse from family members;
  • Parents favouring (or perceived to have favoured) one of their children over the other(s);
  • Lifetime transfers of assets, or funds – this seems to be a particular issue where the transfers have been “hidden” from other family members;
  • Siblings holding a grudge against each over, because they fell out or didn’t get on when they were younger;
  • Relationships breaking down, including affairs or friction caused in the household due to an inequality in income, hours in work, childcare responsibility;
  • Someone being estranged from their parents, or other family members;
  • Unequal division of caring responsibilities towards an aging parent or family member, particularly those diagnosed with an illness or disability;
  • A person having two “families” – this one always astounds me (how do they have the time!?!);
  • A carer, neighbour, family friend, or charity being left the money, instead of family members;
  • Step-parent coming changing the family dynamic, or being left their spouse’s wealth when they pass away; and
  • Promises made by family members during their lifetime, not being kept on death.

Society is so diverse, and a fall out can happen for any number of reasons, whether in the spur of a moment when family divisions have occurred or built up over the years. As there is no “one size fits all”, it also means that the importance should be on having conversations early, and ensuring these are with a professional, so that safeguards are in place should allegations arise after death. Families should also consider whether to have open discussions during their lifetime so there are no surprises on death.

One thing is for sure, year on year in practising in disputes after death, nothing really surprises me anymore. The family secrets and politics that we are privy to sometimes feel akin to watching Eastenders or Coronation Street, rather than real life. However, it also makes our jobs interesting and keeps us on our toes.

As a final thought, our area of work makes me remember how much we need to make sure we live each day to the full. For those of you that were able to enjoy the sunshine this week (and hopefully it will continue), I hope you got to spend time doing things that you loved or enjoying time with your loved ones. I spent the weekend in London cycling (on car-free roads) 100 miles in Ride London to Essex and back. It was truly stunning and an event that is well worthwhile taking part in should it take your fancy in the future. Exercise is very much my happy place at the moment, particularly with the training towards Ironman Wales in September 2023, so is likely to be a big feature of my blog going forwards.

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