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"One day all of this will be yours": lessons from literary inheritance disputes

By Thea Dunne -

"One day all of this will be yours": lessons from literary inheritance disputes

"Whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit," Dickens famously wrote of Bleak House's  Jarndyce v Jarndyce. The lamentable failure to instruct a good family lawyer has made for many a memorable plotline, but what lessons can be learned from the disputes which have become the stuff of legend?

Do not impersonate the deceased

Gianni Schicchi, Puccini; Libretto by Giovacchino Forzano

Condemned to hell by Dante, Giovacchino Forzano's libretto makes a wily hero of the eponymous Schicchi who tricks Buoso Donati's vile, disinherited family to secure his daughter's dowry. A fraud who denies the monks their rightful mule, house and mills, Schicchi would have been sternly reprimanded in the courtroom, but one wonders at the wisdom of the Donatis in asking an itinerant baritone to climb in to their uncle's four poster.

Were the family facing similar straits in 21st century England, contesting an 'unfair' bequest would be a less perverse route to go down. However it is both a point of pride and liability that in English inheritance law you retain the liberty at death to dispose of your property as you please.

Ultimately Schicchi ought to be judged with leniency, as his daughter Lauretta persuaded him to intervene by way of one of the most beautiful arias ever composed.

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Do not keep changing your will

Middlemarch, George Eliot

This novel is faultless. And making Mary Garth directly if inadvertently responsible for the total collapse of Fred Vincy's fortunes by way of unfavourable probate was a crucial and comic touch from Eliot's godlike pen. Old Featherstone frantically begs Mary to destroy his second will, but Mary refuses, insisting on waiting until the morning. Mary's instinct, that Featherstone should have a new, valid will written up, was a good one. However it was an instinct that left Fred disinherited when Featherstone died overnight. Like Dickens' Pip and Richard Carstone, the dissipation of Fred's great expectations teaches him a suitably grave and very Victorian moral message about the dangers of counting ones chickens. In our courts today, establishing whether the will contradicted a pre-established promise to Fred would be key. But that would be near-impossible to establish, given Featherstone's wilful manipulation of his hopeful beneficiaries. Had Mary Garth complied with Featherstone's request to destroy the second will, the snarled mess of probate would likely be susceptible to claims doubting Featherstone's mental capacity or the remaining will's validity. Had Featherstone's hangers-on had accused Mary of undue volition as she may have feared, it would be complicated further. Fifty years after the novel was set, and barely a decade after its publication leading probate judge Sir James Hannen explored the issue of influence, in the judgment of Wingrove v Wingrove (1885) stating in essence that the testator's volition has to be forcibly overcome to bring about a will that he would not otherwise have made. Featherstone's concerted efforts to make it as clear as mud who would inherit his money, ensured that his wishes would be near-impossible to comply with. Making multiple wills to plan your estate, especially where there is property across jurisdictions, is not unheard of, but making conflicting wills, is invariably a recipe for disaster.

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Definitely do not forget to make one at all

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

The most notorious case in fiction, and byword for prolonged excessive litigation, let Jarndyce v Jarndyce be a warning for dying intestate. Though we may have progressed somewhat from the snail-pace of nineteenth century proceedings, recent disputes have similarly gobbled up the estate in costs. Good legal drafting can safeguard against this, but sometimes an episode of spontaneous combustion may be what it takes to get to the heart of the matter.

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The devil is in the detail

Wilkie Collins' graveside drama

A second family can be a cause for bitter inheritance disputes, not to mention a nasty shock at the graveside. Collins, to give him credit, made it work, successfully providing for not one but two of his families.

Unorthodox and always regarded as faintly disrespectable, Collins split his time across two homes and two families for nearly twenty years. His will revealed how his estate was split between his two lovers and their children Caroline Graves and one with Martha Rudd. As was common in the nineteenth century, the women didn't inherit a liquidated amount directly but their inheritance was held in trust. On Caroline's death her half was for the benefit of her child, on her child's death that half was to be transferred over and used for the benefit of the much younger Martha and her children. The income from this trust kept both households for the rest of their lives.

Dickens who had his own much younger mistress, nevertheless remained the darling of the public. Dickens met 18 year old actress Ellen Ternan, who went by the name Nelly Robinson, when he was 45. She inherited a legacy of £1,000 on his death in 1870 and sufficient income from a trust fund to ensure that she would never have to work again.

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Do give them something to puzzle over

Shakespeare's second best bed

"Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed" -  this famous bequest in Shakespeare's will could be the ultimate kiss-off, or as the author of this article prefers to believe, a romantic gesture alluding to steamy nights of what Carol Ann Duffy refers to as "diving for pearls". No one will ever know for sure.

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Finish with a bang

Mark Twain's delayed memoirs

Mark Twain's will left instructions that his personal memoirs should be published 100 years after his death. In 2010, as per his instructions, publication began. Though they largely proved  disappointing, with the entries largely encompassing of an unmitigated outpouring of bile, no one can deny that it was a fantastic final flourish. The non-financial bequest is underdone and underrated.

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Thea Dunne

Thea joined Vardags in September 2016. She read English at Trinity College, Cambridge and now writes as a legal journalist as well as manages Vardags' publicity…