Family feuds the Tonic

Family competitions and inheritance wars

Nothing creates family feuds quite like differences over money. And you know what they say, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a family disputing it’…

The number-one cause of family feuds? Inheritance. Even Nelson Mandela’s relatives wrangled over his legacy while he fought for his life in hospital. And the ‘Queen of Mean’, Leona Helmsley – famous for pronouncing ‘only the little people pay taxes’ before being imprisoned for tax evasion – stuck two manicured fingers up at her family by omitting them from her will and leaving $12 million to Trouble, her eight-year-old Maltese dog.

Face it, there have been issues over sharing since Adam and Eve split that apple. Whether you intend to leave loved ones your Mayfair property portfolio or your modest collection of Now That’s What I Call Music CDs, there’s a danger of unseemly squabbling before the funeral sausage rolls have had a chance to cool.

A record number of inheritance cases have come to court in recent years, which lawyers put down to high house prices and an increase in the complexity of family structures. Daniel Winter, from the law firm Nockolds, says: ‘People are more likely to marry multiple times, or cohabit and when children and stepchildren are involved, the likelihood of someone feeling hard-done-by is greater than ever.’

If, like Patrick, 64, a Nottingham-based osteopath, you have felt hard-done-by all your life, tension over a will is all the more likely to explode.


Dad gave me the distinct impression that three was a crowd when it came to his sons. It came as no surprise when he appointed them as executors


‘My father always favoured my two elder brothers,’ he explains. ‘I was close to Mum, but Dad gave me the distinct impression that three was a crowd when it came to his sons.

‘It came as no surprise when he appointed them as executors of his will. I wasn’t bothered about the money side – they’d always been more interested in that than me – but a month after Dad died, my brothers made arrangements to move Mum to a care home, claiming she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, although there was absolutely no medical evidence, and put the family home on the market.

‘I found out Dad had given them authority over the money he’d left Mum. They were adamant it was for the best, which was rubbish. She was only 72 and perfectly able to live independently. I was furious, but as usual, they ignored me, just as they used to when I was seven and begging for a turn on their Scalextric.

‘I had to hire a lawyer, which cost the best part of £30,000, but eventually we proved Mum’s mental capability and stopped the sale of the home that was rightfully hers.

‘She has moved back in now and despite everything, is desperate to heal the rift between me and my brothers. But I can’t forgive their greed and deceit and never will.’

Greed and deceit are words that ring in the ears of Sarah, 54, from Maidstone in Kent following the death of her 96-year-old father earlier this year.


Dad would use his finances to set us against each other


‘Dad used money to control my siblings and me all his life. His favourite saying was ‘nothing matters more than family’, but in fact, he would use his finances to set us against each other. He’d single someone out, put money behind a house renovation, or pay for singing lessons for one of our kids, then without warning, he’s stop the payment, complaining we weren’t making the most of it, or were ungrateful in some way.

‘As he grew older, he became obsessed with his will. He was always tinkering with it, adding people in, taking others out. He couldn’t bear the thought of giving anything away without counting the cost because then he would lose his power.

‘I’ve always been close to my brothers and sisters, but when Dad died, I realised that he’d passed on some of his manipulative ways as well as his money. One admitted she’d been invited to take her pick of his possessions. Visiting her house, I could see she’d certainly made the most of it, choosing the most valuable paintings and furniture. “It’s like the Antiques Roadshow in here,” I tried to joke and she went bright red.

‘I didn’t want to be petty or greedy – things Dad would accuse us of being – but I couldn’t help feeling sad that our family’s heritage was to know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

‘I would have loved my father to have left me just one thing, even a kitchen mug or a photo in a cheap frame, that meant something to him, let alone me.’

After watching the Queen’s Christmas broadcast on TV one year, Cathy Spencer’s elderly mother became fond of stressing her desire for ‘family unity’.


She encouraged fierce competition among her children and games of Monopoly would end in misery


‘Ironic, really,’ Cathy, 56, says, ‘because Mum’s policy was more like “divide and rule”. If she dished out praise, it would be in a way that made the rest of us feel bad, as in “John’s so clever, I never had to worry about him passing his exams”.

‘She encouraged fierce competition among her children and games of Monopoly would end in misery as one budding capitalist bankrupted his younger siblings with hotels on Park Lane, to much maternal approval. The annual family tennis competition on holiday in Devon was a nightmare of disputed line calls and rackets being thwacked on the grass if a serve was out. As I got older, I began to wonder if what we really feared was that her love would stop if the match was lost.

‘The egging-on spirit made for great career success for the first and second-born children, arch rivals from the start, and Mum never stopped spurring them on. The spotlight wasn’t quite so brightly lit down the younger end of the family, and interestingly while we lesser mortals might not be as wealthy, our marriages and working lives tend to be more fulfilled.

‘By the time the eldest child is late 60s, a company director with several grandchildren, you’d think the old sibling conflicts would have died out, but oh no.

‘Within a day of our mother’s death at 89, the arguments had begun on the group email. They weren’t about money, but plans for the funeral. Who’d have thought the choice of hymns would have to be spread-sheeted and voted on, as hotly contested as the Brexit second referendum?

‘Which hymn won? Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace. You’ve got to laugh.’


How to keep the peace (alive or dead):

1 The greatest gift you can leave loved ones is crystal-clear instructions. If you want Hallelujah to be played at your funeral, but only Leonard Cohen’s Live at the Albert Hall version, then for heaven’s sake, put it in writing.2 If you are choosing one of your children as executor, make it plain why. Perhaps it’s because they are the oldest, live nearest, or have a PhD in Conflict Resolution.

3 If you have several children, it’s always best to divide the spoils equally, even if one’s a Premier League footballer and another’s a nurse. They can always redistribute it among themselves afterwards (yeah, right!) but it lets you off the hook in the lethal game of ‘Mum/Dad loved me more’.

4 Specify gifts in your will and make sure all your nearest and dearest are mentioned by name. Remember that jewellery often carries huge sentimental and symbolic value. If anyone’s going to fight over your wedding ring, best keep it on your finger.

5 Once you’re satisfied that your will is as fair as it can possibly be, sign on the dotted line and lock it away with no discussion at all. Don’t be tempted to make changes unless absolutely necessary, even if you do feel like striking off that sulky in-law who never visits.

Be gracious and you’ll feel great. No one wants their last message to the world to be a well-thumbed list covered in Tippex.

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Christabel Smith

People at parties often ask journalists which story they remember...

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