Unless you have been living with a remote Amazonian tribe for the last five years, you cannot fail to have noticed the success, both in print and at the cinema, of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy of novels, beginning with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. You may also know that the three novels were published after Larsson’s sudden death from a heart attack in 2004. They have since sold over 32 million copies worldwide. What happened next is a plot worthy of inclusion in a novel.
Larsson unfortunately failed to leave his estate in good order. He drafted his own will in 1977 but did not execute it properly, so it had no legal standing. He did not review the document again and, of course, did not anticipate his very different financial or personal circumstances at and after his death.
This meant that Larsson died intestate. Under Swedish law, his estate passed to his (allegedly estranged) father and brother, leaving nothing to his partner of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson. Gabrielsson says that the couple did not get married, despite their long-term and committed relationship, because they could not risk details of their address becoming public after Larsson wrote a series of articles criticising neo-Nazi groups in Sweden.
Larsson’s estate is worth over £20 million and, with rumours circulating of one completed manuscript and up to three further novels in draft form on a laptop which Gabrielsson is refusing to hand over to the Larsson family, it is not surprising that litigation is pending. So far, the family are reported to have offered Gabrielsson the flat she lived in with Larsson (refused) and then £1.75 million (also refused) in return for the laptop. Gabrielsson has recently released her own autobiography detailing life with the writer and has also set up a fighting fund asking fans to contribute towards her legal fees.
Unfortunately, this is not such an uncommon story. It is estimated that less than 30% of adults in the UK have a will. This leaves their estates at the mercy of the laws of intestacy (dying without a valid will), which only deal with blood relations, spouses and civil partners. It also means that the deceased does not choose who should be the guardian(s) for any minor children or who should administer their estate.
Cohabitees don’t feature at all in an intestacy, however long the couple have lived together. Unfortunately, the myth of the ‘common-law spouse’ persists and many people think that this may save them from needing to write a will. It won’t.
Disappointed cohabitees in England and Wales who lived with the deceased continuously for at least two years before their death can make an application under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 for reasonable financial provision from the estate, but this will be limited to what the court considers is needed to maintain the surviving partner, while balancing the needs of the parties who have inherited under the intestacy.
This can be devastating for a family. What parent, receiving nothing from their partner, would relish the prospect of suing their own children for a greater share of the estate? If the children are over 18 they may agree to vary the estate so that their parent inherits something, but it is not conducive to good family relations.
It’s even worse if the children are under 18, because no variation can be agreed without the permission of the court – and the court will want the children’s views to be legally represented. The most likely scenario is that all the costs of this will come out of the estate so that everyone ends up with less.
The volatile nature of relationships with in-laws has also recently been in the news. Bad enough to have a mother-in-law who thinks you aren’t good enough; how much worse to have to grieve the loss of your partner while their parent or sibling wants – and has the legal right – to evict you so they can inherit?
There is a simple solution to this: make a will. Write down what you want to happen to your estate after you die. Choose who should be the guardian to the children if neither of their parents are around and maybe even save some inheritance tax. Execute it properly so that it is valid.
For a cost likely to be less than a year’s insurance for your car, it is a false economy not to put one in place. Not because lawyers want to sell you something, but because lawyers don’t want to have to sell you their litigation services.