A family from the United Kingdom has made international news as a result of an alleged will forgery fueled by a mother-in-law’s disdain for her daughter’s husband. Gillian Williams died in May 2017 and was survived by her daughter, Julie Fairs, who is accused, with her husband Brian, of falsifying a signature on a document purporting to be a last will and testament following Mum’s death.
“Cantankerous,” “arrogant,” and “wanted everything done his way” are just a few of the descriptions enraged family members have used to describe the son-in-law. Remarkably, the decedent’s sister, Lynn Botchett, testified that her sister would never have left a bequest to her daughter, Julie, because “she did not like Brian.” It is alleged that as a result of the disinheritance, following Gillian’s death, a falsified last will was produced that included Julie. A probate expert has called the last will’s appearance “unusual” and the signature appears to have been “cut and pasted.”
The Williams situation has progressed into a very public trial wherein various family members have been summoned to publicly testify about the family’s dirty laundry. Although trials for will contests are often avoided, the underlying emotions, as they relate to in-laws, remain ubiquitous and clients constantly complain about their in-laws.
When it comes to sons-in-laws, not everyone can enjoy a famously friendly relationship, like that of Marian Robinson and Barack Obama or Kris Jenner and Kanye West. Frequently, the in-law relationship is more acerbic like that of Archie Bunker and Michael “Meathead” Stivic. There is no law that you must like your son-in-law. The law, however, presumes that you do like your child enough (despite her spouse) to include her in your estate. This means that if there is no surviving spouse, your children are presumed to be the “natural object of your bounty,” or more simply, the individuals whom the law, public policy, and general religious and social norms dictate are entitled to your assets when you die. When you choose to exclude a child, enhanced scrutiny may be applied to the review of the last will.
Issues arise when feelings for your child are altered by disdain or concern for their spouse. Clients may wish to exclude a child from an estate plan for fear that the spouse will consume the inheritance or unjustly benefit in the event of a divorce. Sometimes parents are unable to move past a child’s decision to marry someone whom they dislike or even worse hate. In the latter case, parents may choose disinheritance as a punishment.
Disinheriting anyone, but especially a child, must be taken seriously. The ramifications of such an action are costly and emotionally painful, not just for the disinherited, but also for the other siblings who are benefiting from an increased estate share. A last will and testament is a final directive, wherein the testator does not have the opportunity to explain himself. If one is disinherited, the last will’s words are the final sentencing for the relationship and there is no chance for reconciliation. Further, the other beneficiaries and the executor are left to defend the decedent’s decisions, often with little explanation and a lot of awkwardness.
It is prudent to explore alternate options if the impetus for disinheritance is a child’s spouse. If the concern is that the repugnant spouse will commandeer the inheritance or control the distribution, a beneficiary’s share can be held in continuing trust so that the spouse may not have access to the funds. This way, in the event of a divorce, or even just general money management, the assets are protected and preserved for the benefit of the child. The trustee can be another sibling, a friend, or someone completely independent. It is important to note that while inheritances are generally protected in divorce, the moment the funds are comingled, they become joint property. As such, a trust is a solid solution when in fear of a relationship dissolution.
Alternatively, a testator can skip a generation and make a bequest instead to the child’s children (the grandchildren). This option is only likely to work in the event the funds are not tremendously significant. It is possible that skipping a generation will insult the child as such an action may have the indirect consequences of pitting the grandchild against her own parent. Siblings can be pitted against one another if the testator gives a child’s bequest in trust to a sibling, with a “power of appointment” so that the holder of the inheritance may decide, in the future, when her sister may receive her share. Similarly, you can divide the estate in unequal shares so as not to completely disinherit a child, but to leave her significantly less monies. This will surely cause hard feelings between sisters and brothers.
Part of growing up is letting children make their own choices. The permanency of a last will and testament is not the forum to teach your child, or her spouse, a lesson. The effects of such an action, like disinheritance, can reverberate for years and may prompt additional lawsuits, as we see in the Williams case. It may also cause additional strife between the married couple and also their children, the testator’s grandchildren.
Regardless of how abominable, appalling, dreadful, evil, obscene, loathsome, nasty, nauseating, and repulsive your son-in-law is, we should all be reminded as we write our final directives, of our children, whose decisions we may not agree with, but who are extensions of ourselves. If there are ways to avoid post-mortem conflict, we should owe it to our entire families to explore them.