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March 24, 2017updated 28 Mar 2017 11:50am

How to prevent a family war 

By Spear's

There are easy ways to leave behind a happy family when it’s your time to go, writes tax, trusts and estates lawyer Andrew Murray

We’re all told to write a will, and the higher the value of our assets the greater the pressures to get one’s estate arranged in advance of that almost unimaginable time when we won’t be here anymore.

But in my experience, just drawing up a valid, tax-effective and up-to-date will isn’t necessarily enough. All too often it’s the practical and emotional matters you leave behind that really matter. So here’s a top tip I give to clients to stop your family going to war over your estate: it’s the side letters stored with your will that count.

There are many uses which open letters without envelopes safely stored with your will can have a number of crucial uses. For instance, it can be a way to tell beneficiaries how you want your money put to use after you’re gone. I had a client who had left a considerable sum to her daughter, but didn’t really trust their son-in-law: the fear was that as soon as the inheritance came through, the son-in-law would be off on expensive holidays, buying cars and partying. That’s where a letter can come in handy. In this instance, the client wrote to the daughter outlining instructions about how she wanted her legacy used: pay off the mortgage; invest in retirement planning; and don’t blow it all on holidays and clothes.

Such a letter isn’t a legally binding request but both the daughter and son-in-law were well aware that a number of people had seen the letter: its moral weight ensured that the deceased’s wishes were followed and that the daughter was under less pressure to accept her husband’s tendency for carefree spending.

Similarly, I always advise clients who are appointing guardians of minor children to leave instructions regarding how the guardian should act. ‘Teach them to ride,’ or ‘let them learn to fish – they will inherit all the fishing rights on the estate’ are useful pointers – and many parents find setting this out in a letter is a good way to crystallise their own thoughts on the years to come. Guardians have a great deal of control and communicating like this can prevent future misunderstanding.

Even more valuable are closed and sealed letters. For example, what if you were to die suddenly in an accident? Or what if your death were to occur after a long period of incapacitation or unconsciousness? A tip: while you are fit and well enough, write goodbye letters to your nearest and dearest: it’s a time to say ‘I love you’ or ‘thank you’ and will ensure you have no regrets. For instance, I had a father and son who were especially close, but had a one-off argument the day before the father died. The son was mortified that his last words to his father had been spoken in anger – but the father had left with me a letter to his son telling him how he had been the perfect son and friend. I watched as all the son’s self-flagellation and grief lifted as he realised that their last argument hadn’t defined their relationship.

It doesn’t even have to be a letter; there are also modern methods. Plenty of my clients leave DVD recordings of messages, or deposit video recorded on USB sticks with me, to hand on to future loved ones. Nor does this need to be a miserable task – these are ways of passing on instructions or messages to family and friends to avoid leaving argument behind. They can be as witty and friendly as you like – they do, after all, reflect your character as well as your wishes.

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Andrew Murray specialises in advising HNW clients on will preparation and probate and is a partner at law firm Pitmans LLP.

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