I love a good whodunnit. My plan to get through winter lockdown involves a fat pile of murder mystery novels and shrewdly deducing the best films and box sets from this genre to stream online.
It struck me that there is a link between my twin obsessions of detective fiction and personal finance.
A scuffle over a will is one of the most useful plot devices for the writers of detective fiction — and the bigger the inheritance, the better.
We might relish these whodunnits, but when it comes to making our own wills, it’s often a case of “haven’t done it”.
It is estimated that more than half of UK adults either have not made a will, or have not updated it for some time — something that can have unpleasantly dramatic consequences.
Lawyers tell me that January is traditionally the time when many of us resolve to get round to making a will. Could the Christmas TV schedules be covertly nudging us to do so?
A seasonal oldie but goodie from Agatha Christie is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (ITV3) which opens with the cantankerous multi-millionaire Simeon Lee ominously telling his extended family that he intends to update his will. Hours later, he’s lying dead in a pool of blood, leaving Poirot to fathom who stood to gain or lose the most as he solves the locked room mystery.
Solicitors think it is more likely that spending time with our families over Christmas is the trigger — for good or ill. They tell me they often receive requests to change bequests in January, sometimes after a blazing row erupts around the dining table.
This Christmas has been a much quieter affair for most of us, yet the pandemic has underlined the frailty of human life. There was a huge surge in will writing last year, and the move towards video witnessing of wills in England and Wales means this is set to continue under lockdown.
If you haven’t written a will or updated yours for a while, then here are a few potential plot twists to bear in mind (infused with a few more film and book suggestions).
The myth of the common-law partner is sadly the most common “unhappy ending” seen by Andrew Wilkinson, partner and head of inheritance disputes at the law firm Shakespeare Martineau.
Also a lover of murder mysteries, his top lockdown film pick is Knives Out, starring Daniel Craig as the detective, which features an epic will-reading scene.
“If you’re not married or in a civil partnership, there is still an assumption that if you live with someone you’re in a relationship with, you will still be provided for if they die without making a will,” he says.
Spoiler — you won’t be. There is no such thing in legal terms as a “common law” spouse. You could resort to litigation to seek provision from the estate but even if you succeed, this is likely to take time and incur significant costs — one of which could be an inheritance tax liability.
Cohabiting couples can be stung by this, but spouses and civil partners can pool their IHT allowance, so any tax due is only payable upon the second death.
These nuances are rarely reflected in detective fiction. Take, for example, Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, which I devoured over Christmas. Following the suspicious death of the protagonist, his ex-lover inherits a vast mansion as he hadn’t yet been written out of the will. However, I fervently wished Horowitz had added in a paragraph about the crippling IHT bill that would have resulted from this arrangement!
There are all kinds of murder mystery novels that feature missing wills — often because they have been hidden or forged, or because the dead person had a superstitious aversion to writing one (see Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death and Christie’s Peril at End House for two gripping examples).
In real life, dying intestate causes a great deal of drama and anguish for your descendants. The father of one of my colleagues died suddenly in his early sixties, leaving a tangled web of businesses and properties all over the world which she and her brother spent seven years attempting to unravel.
It’s not a murder mystery, but if you streamed the BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House over Christmas, you’ll be aware the plot revolves around a long-running inheritance battle called Jarndyce vs Jarndyce (perhaps the most famous fictional legal case).
Ultimately, the only winners are the lawyers, as decades of deliberation exhaust the fortune being fought over.
If you make a will but you’re not clear about your intentions, this can also result in future anguish and costly legal bills for your descendants.
At my last hair appointment before lockdown, my hairdresser told me she and her siblings had decided against fighting for a share of their late father’s estate. He had married again and his second wife inherited when he died. There was an expectation that the children from his first marriage would get something when his second wife died — but she left the lot to her own children.
“Often, there isn’t a legal fight to have,” says Mr Wilkinson, adding that adult children who are of reasonable financial means will usually struggle to bring a claim when they are disinherited by their stepmother or father.
He has come across many similar examples in his professional life. To avoid this, you could structure your estate in such a way to ensure that some assets pass directly to your children upon your death, rather than automatically to your spouse. Or you could specify that your spouse gets the benefit of certain assets while he or she is alive, after which the benefits trickle down to your children.
Other tips to avoid unnecessary drama including writing a letter of wishes to explain your intentions, and keeping an up-to-date list of your assets with account numbers and useful contacts (such as financial advisers or stockbrokers) to aid your executors.
Finally, if you’ve agreed to act as an executor yourself, be aware that you will be personally liable for ensuring the correct amount of inheritance tax is paid.
One recent court case that could have sprung from the pages of a novel involved an executor who passed on an inheritance to the deceased’s brother, with the expectation that he would settle the final tax bills. However, the brother flew to Barbados and vanished — leaving the unfortunate executor on the hook to HM Revenue & Customs for £340,000.
Claer Barrett is the FT’s consumer editor, and a financial commentator on Eddie Mair’s LBC drive-time show, on weekdays between 4-7pm: Twitter Instagram