Let's choose executors and talk of wills [1] 

 

by Joe Sinclair

 

 

Beneficiary

Executor

 

My Aunt Lily died and amongst the documents she had carefully identified for just such an eventuality was her Last Will and Testament. 

Mind and memory were instantly transported back half-a-century to a routine, by one of a post-World War II group of Jewish-American comedians, about reading a last will.  After going through all the bequests very amusingly, he ended with: "And to Louis, who never expected to be mentioned in my will . . . 'Hello Louis!'"

Aunt Lily took this a stage further.  After all, the fictitious Louis is presumed to have been disliked, or at least ill-regarded, whereas the late, lamented sole sister of my even later lamented mother, loved me dearly.

She knew (or suspected) that a bequest from her fairly modest estate would prove embarrassing to me, since there were family members in far greater financial need than myself.  How then to show her appreciation of the love, the many kindnesses and the help I had given her during her later, frail and pain-filled years?  She found an answer.

She appointed me Executor of her estate.

It was a generous act of love, of trust of gratitude, and of friendship.

(So who needs enemies?)

 

And to my nephew Joe I bequeath a headache

 

At this point let me introduce you to the psychological concept of Drivers.  Those of you for whom this is "old hat" may take a coffee break and I'll let you know when to come back.

Drivers are powerful messages that are stamped on our personalities from childhood and compel us to behave in specific ways.  They have developed from injunctions (i.e. "don't" messages) that we took on board from our parents and other authority figures.  "Don't be such a cry-baby."  "Don't do that . . . you know it upsets me."  "Don't waste so much time."  "Don't give up so easily."  "Don't settle for second best."

Over a period of time, these messages develop into five main Drivers that are the result of absorbing the injunctions and are (in the same order): Be Strong, Please Me, Hurry Up, Try Hard, Be Perfect.  Normally one of these is more prominent than the others, although they all tend to have some influence on our behaviour patterns.  An over-emphatic desire to obey our Drivers will lead to neurosis.  

Woody Allen is Drivers personified.  He is ruled by them all, and they drive him to the brink of despair . . . and sometimes beyond. [2]

I feel I have a lot in common with Woody Allen.

 

This is where those clever-clogs know-it-alls can rejoin us

 

Aunt Lily was a caring and considerate person.  She took a number of important and helpful precautions in anticipation of her demise.  A clear Last Will and Testament was drawn up, spelling out precisely what bequests were to be given and to whom.  She very sensibly and considerately invested sufficient funds in savings bonds to cover these bequests.  She named her dearest friend as residual beneficiary, so that whatever was left in the estate, after dealing with the main bequests, would have a home to go to.  She also took out a funeral plan to ensure that her executor would not have to concern himself with the cost of the funeral.  She even left a little cash, hidden around her small (sheltered accommodation) apartment, so that initial expenses could be met in advance of the will being proven.  

And then she somewhat inconsiderately became ill and died.  In the process she overlooked a number of rather crucial matters.

  She did not - could not - anticipate her sudden illness, the pain of which rendered her incapable of her habitual power of concentration.  Nor did she anticipate that it would involve hospitalisation and death in hospital.  Her pronounced intention was to die in her own bed, causing as little trouble as possible to friends and family.

  Correspondence had thus been allowed to accumulate during the several weeks prior to her hospitalisation.   Envelopes containing cheques and bills were unopened.  Official enquiries remained unanswered.  And once in hospital, she was so sedated that she was quite unable to give instructions as to how it should be handled - even had she recalled that they existed.

  During her long lifetime of almost 90 years, I doubt if she ever threw away a single piece of paper.  Her failure to discuss the enormous accumulation of material with her proposed executor meant that every piece of paper had to be sifted and studied.

  Amongst the unopened (or unattended) correspondence were such items as income tax refunds and housing benefit demands which were large enough (having regard to the fairly moderate size of her estate) to make a significant impact on the execution of the will.

  This meant that the modest balance of the estate that she anticipated going to her dear friend was either going to be much larger than she ever imagined, or subject to so much difficult negotiation that all her plans to avoid complication had gone for nothing.

  Most important of all was the fact that she had overlooked the Drivers of her nephew and executor Joe, who felt obligated to safeguard as much as possible for the residual beneficiary (Be Perfect and Please You), to do it as expeditiously as possible (Hurry Up) and to be constantly critical of his own failure to do so (Try Harder).  The only Driver that didn't get an obvious airing was Be Strong.  At the end of the day, however, and at the end of his tether, this was the only one that had real significance.

So what did I do?  And what did I learn from the exercise?  And what advice would I like to pass on to you, dear Reader?

  There is a simple solution for the executors of most estates who wish to avoid much of the work and hassle.  But as with all simple solutions, it comes at a cost.  It is to employ a professional to do the work of administration for you.  In the UK, this is usually a solicitor - in the legal sense, of course!

  I considered this course, but the minimum cost of legal intervention would have amounted to almost half the anticipated residual bequest to my aunt's friend and would have considerably offended my Be Perfect Driver.  So I determined to do the job myself.

  Three months later I was still trying to complete the administration of the estate.  My task had been rendered much more difficult than it needed to be as a result of sheer inefficiency on the part of various official bodies (so what else is new?) complicated by the even greater inefficiency of the British postal service. 

  The most valuable lesson I learned from this exercise, which I'm now going to pass on to you, is that the best way to ensure that the executor of your will has a relatively hassle-free time (particularly if he's as Driver-ridden as I am) is to make him or her the residual beneficiary of the estate.  

Thus: "To my dear friend [where the friend is the intended residual beneficiary] I leave 1,000 [or whatever amount you determine] or the cash residue of my estate whichever is the lesser."  Then: "To my [executor] I bequeath the residue of my estate."

In that way the friend is guaranteed the desired amount [1,000 in this case] provided that at least that amount is left in the estate once all creditors have been paid, and the hapless executor has only his own potential bequest to worry about when considering whether or not to pay for professional help.

His Be Perfect driver will be satisfied by the excellence of his handling of the estate and complying with the testator's wishes; his Hurry Up driver can be assuaged by paying for assistance in the knowledge that it will incur costs to nobody but himself."

And the first thing I did once I had learned this lesson was to change my own will.  My best friend is no longer my executor.  After all, as I suggested earlier, "With friends like me . . . "  And I'd hate to have someone write an article like this about me when I'm gone.

On September 12, 2004 I shall be throwing a barbecue party to celebrate a rather special birthday of my own.  I won't reveal the age, but the candles will stretch from one end of the garden to the other.  It would have been the occasion, too, of Aunt Lily's 90th and I had planned a really big event.  Well, it was not to be.  But we will be having a ceremony of scattering her ashes in the brook at the end of the garden, and we'll raise a glass and toast the memory of a really brave and thoughtful lady who taught me a lot in life, and has ensured that the lessons would not end with her death.

 

POSTSCRIPT

One of the more frustrating areas of activity for executors of probated wills has always been dealing with the bureaucratic services involved therein.  Perhaps every generation believes that their situation is the worst.  I am no exception to this belief.  Let me describe a few of the difficulties that were put in my path.

  It took one month before the Grant of Administration was obtained from the Probate Office.  They claimed to have sent the document three times by normal (second-class!!) mail before finally, after considerable pressure by me, they sent it Recorded Delivery, and it arrived.

Was this the fault of the Royal Mail?  Or was it inefficiency on the part of the Probate Office?  One will never know.

  It took three weeks for the bank to release the funds from the estate's blocked bank account.  The bank claimed it had never received the completed withdrawal forms that I had returned in their own stamped-addressed envelope.  It required my attendance at their local branch office, and insistence that they fax a new set of completed forms to their head office, before the funds were finally released.  And then it took one week and three phone calls (each one assuring me that "the cheque is in the post") before this part was finalised.

Was this the fault of the Royal Mail?  Or was it inefficiency on the part of the bank?  How can one tell? 

  Shortly after Aunt Lily died a statement arrived from the Housing Benefit department showing her to be in credit to the amount of 640.  I asked for this to be settled by cheque.  The reply was to send me a demand on the Estate in the sum of 505 as being underpayment of a required reimbursement of benefit.  I immediately raised an objection and asked for a proper explanation.  Three months later I am still without a response.

This is clearly a confusion between the local government department responsible for sheltered accommodation and the private organisation that they employ to administer the system.  Will it ever be resolved?  Who can say?

Public sector service providers, such as Housing Benefit organisations, used to take the words "public" and "service" literally.  Now they might more appropriately be named Public Service Strategy Providers.  The shell is still there, but the contents too often nowadays are brain dead.

 

"We're just working out your entitlement now, Mr Smith."

 

  After six weeks of frustration,  I made an official complaint to the Royal Mail Customer Services Centre.  This was in respect of the non-delivery of the Grant of Administration, but I also had failed to receive my pay slip - mailed a week earlier - and a review copy of a book.  Subsequently I made a further complaint, to the effect that I had had no response to my earlier complaint and that, in the meantime, another copy of the book and my current month's pay slip had also not been delivered.  Nor had a bank statement that had been posted to me two weeks earlier.

I referred to my previous conversation with a Mr David White.  My telephone interlocutor, a woman, said she had never heard of him.  I pointed out that he was one of her colleagues.  "Do you realise we have over 300 people working here?" she demanded brusquely.

I couldn't resist the response: "What a pity you're not all out delivering letters."

The comment did not go down too well, but it made me feel a hell of a lot better.

 

"Where there's a will there's a wait"

 


[1]  Shakespeare's Richard II

[2]  "It's not that I'm afraid to die; I just don't want to be there when it happens."

 (Woody Allen)