Strange inheritances: people’s odd bequests (and what happens if you die without a will)

People leave some odd things in their wills. There’s even a new US reality show about them. But at least they made a will, says Claire Mason: without one, don’t assume your family will inherit

The Irish treat death with great respect. The removal, wake, mass, burial, attendant pub sessions, and accompanying rituals of death mark the deceased’s life with reverence and warmth.

However, the same can’t be said of their regard for that most important of end-of-life documents, the last will and testament. Only 34 per cent of Irish people have made a will, according to a 2012 Amarach Research survey. But when they do, they tend to use it as one last hurrah for Irish idiosyncrasy, and my own family is no exception, as you will see.

British people also seem to be remiss in drawing up wills: according to a 2014 survey by The Law Society, 73 per cent of people in the 16–54 age group don’t have a will, and among over-55s, 36 per cent don’t.

They can be just as quirky when they do, if Shakespeare’s will (leaving his “second-best bed” to his wife) is anything to go by. As can the Americans, so much so that new reality show Strange Inheritance is dedicated to just this subject.

My unusual family inheritances

My Irish mother-in-law left a will, with instructions that her only asset, the family home, be sold and the proceeds divided equally among her children. Entirely reasonable and exactly what wills are for.

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In 2011, the Treasury collected £53 million from people who died intestate

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However, she also felt the desire to bequeath her kitchen table and chairs to her youngest, my partner. No other bequests were made, and while the kitchen furniture is useful, it’s not standout by any means.

It holds no sentimental value either, according to my partner, and was purchased at a store that would have been the Ikea of the 1950s. We’re left pondering as to why this table and set of chairs were so important as to warrant a mention in her will.

Her sister went one better with her passing a decade ago. She didn’t get quite as far as the solicitor’s office to draw up legal papers, but she nonetheless documented in a letter left to her family what she wanted done with her remains and her belongings. According to her, only one person was fit to be the recipient of her ‘estate’. Bob Geldof. Until that point, no one knew she’d held the Rat in such high esteem.

Even more surreal is the situation Antony faced when his grandmother passed away in her late 80s. She, like many Irish people, did not leave a will. What she did leave were many porcelain ornaments, which he, as the closest grandchild, duly packed up and stored in his garage.

A while later, cleaning out the boxes, he noticed some papers sticking out of the base of the knickknacks. It was money. After an afternoon spent going through all the ornaments, he had a bounty of close on €30,000.

If you have no will, you die intestate

Not writing a will is serious, as dying intestate leaves a headache, and real emotional and financial cost for loved ones left behind.

Many people erroneously think that their belongings and money, however modest either might be, automatically transfer to their family when they die, but they are wrong. In 2011, the Treasury collected more than £53 million from people who died intestate.

These facts and figures look alarming on paper, but in real life they are even more devastating. As modern families can be made up of children from different spouses, or of parents who are not married, or of couples without children, or indeed of any myriad combinations, it’s vital that interests are protected through a will. In the absence of a will, a loved one could well find themselves without any legal protection to inherit something as basic as the home where they have lived for many years.

Imagine the stress placed on the shoulders of a parent or caregiver if no will exists for the deceased and there are still children to raise.

Make a will and do good too

To counteract these problems from arising, and to nudge people into thinking about their wills (many still feel an irrational superstition over writing a will; that it will somehow cause their demise as soon as the ink is dry), Will Aid, a registered UK charity, uses an innovative approach, linking will-writing with doing good.

By choosing a solicitor listed on the database in November each year, a legally sound will is drawn up for the person by a local solicitor, and a voluntary donation (suggested to be £95 for a single, simple will) is donated to one of the nine charities Will Aid supports.

Once the essentials have been taken care of in the will, people can express their own personality in unique ways. One will bequeathed the deceased’s wheelbarrow to a loved one; another had mention of an exercise bike as an item with a decided heir.

Shakespeare and Napoleon: odd bequests

Shakespeare leaving his “second best bed” to Anne Hathaway is well-known. Many believe it to be a slight, intended to make it known that Anne was not pivotal in his life. Others have argued this is nonsense and that it was customary at the times for the deceased’s children to inherit the best items, and the widow to inherit the second-best pieces.

It’s also possible that the best bed was reserved for guests, whereas the “second-best bed” represents the marital bed, in which case the bequeathing of this item to Anne is anything but an insult.

We’ll never know for sure, but it resonates with what Christina Blacklaws, director of policy at The Co-operative Legal Services, says: “It’s important to remember that wills are about so much more than money.”

For Napoleon, they were also about hair, since he instructed that upon his death, his head be shaved and his hair divided and shared among his friends.

Such is the power of wills that his wishes were duly carried out.

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