To Will Or Not To Will?
18 October, 2009
Strange that The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners should have come out in favour of harmonized EU succession rules just in the week when I was wondering whether it would be nice of me to go after my dead husband's house in Italy.
Let me explain. We were married for nearly fifteen years when we agreed to live apart. Or perhaps he left me. Or perhaps I left him. We each had a son from a previous marriage. He (Henry) was always very generous to me with an allowance, presents and so on. He kept sending money so that I could finish off the house we had been building together in Wales. Now after another twenty years he has died, and the lawyers are going berserk trying to work out what to do with the house be bought himself in Italy, his first wife's house in Amsterdam which still belonged to him, a pile of cash he kept in Guernsey and business interests in the Netherlands and Ireland.
It all adds up to a couple of million or more, and Henry, who lived and died in Cyprus, just a cap it all, didn't leave a will. We even talked about it sometimes on the phone - we were always friendly. He worried that when he went - he was, um, thirty years older than me - there would be a fight between his first wife, who is Dutch, their son and me.
You see, the problem is that succession rules are different in every European country, and in most of them (not in the UK) there are 'forced heirship' rules, which put the interests of the family in front of outsiders, whatever a will says. We don't even know where to apply for probate. In England? But Henry hadn't been here for fifteen years. In Cyprus? But he had hardly any assets there; he lived in a tiny flat on the beach. In Italy? The lawyers say I should go there (or they should go there) and start proceedings just to stake a claim. It's called forum shopping. Now that's one kind of shopping even I never thought of! But Henry's body is hardly cold. It doesn't seem right.
Henry wanted his son to have the Italian house, which is the biggest asset, but couldn't regulate that with a will; Henry thought that he had done well by me, and that's true. I am quite well off with the house and the pension he has left me.
And yet, and yet. I don't get on with his first wife, and she could have a go at the house. The pension is safe because I was the named beneficiary, but the house is still in Henry's name. I know he wanted me to have it; he said so often. I called his first wife to talk about it, but she hasn't called me back.
Oh dear, what to do? We are all going to Cyprus to bury him this week. It should be an interesting funeral!
Anyway the point of this tale is that one should think twice about property investment. At least with cash or shares they are moveable, and if your family relationships change you can adjust your holdings quickly and easily. But with houses, it's like supertankers, it takes years to unscramble a situation. So this is one piece of harmonization I am really in favour of. You can bet the lawyers are against it, though!
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