While reading the numerous recent articles on how many wealthy people there are in the UK – and how many of those are from overseas – it struck me that we should really hand out an instruction manual at Heathrow (or Northolt, for the private planes) on things to remember when you live in the UK.
It could cover the confusing etiquette about standing on the right on Tube escalators, and the mysterious English love of queuing, as well as more useful practical matters.
One key chapter would cover making a will. Often, new residents are coming from countries that have ‘forced heirship’ laws. In many countries, on death, whether or not you make a will, your estate must be divided so that your spouse and children get (at least) a minimum fixed percentage of your estate – and generally this leaves only a small part of which you can dispose freely, meaning the advantages of making a will are less obvious.
Generous, lax or plain eccentric – call them what you will, but the English law rules are radically different, and they can apply to foreign nationals living in the UK just as much as they apply to those born here. In essence, you are obliged to make reasonable provision for anyone who is financially dependent on you (remember Shakespeare’s famous gift to his wife of his ‘second best bed’?).
Subject to that, you may, if you wish, disinherit all or any of your family and leave your entire estate to your pets, friends, or favourite charities (but there are some limits: George Bernard Shaw’s last wish that his fortune be used to promote a new form of alphabet was overruled as too bizarre to be enforceable).
But if you don’t make a will, your assets will passed to your nearest relatives automatically, and in shares (or on terms) which to most people seem archaic.
Over 60 per cent of people in the UK don’t bother making a will, even if they live with an unmarried partner, and/or have small children and/or own their home (three critical signs that you need to make a will).
Let’s take the real example of a successful young businessman with a wife and two toddlers. He assumed, if he died, it would all go to his wife (who would look after the children). He died suddenly with no will, and his wife got: a £250,000 fixed legacy, his personal belongings, and a life interest in half of the rest of his estate.
In effect, she was left dependent upon asking trustees for money for the rest of her life, and didn’t even own her own home. His children, on reaching eighteen, would inherit half his business (and the other half on their mother’s death). It took a court application to ensure that the children would inherit at a later age (so they aren’t tempted to blow the lot at eighteen).
And what if his wife had perished in the same accident? There are no automatic rules governing who will look after young children, who might (in extreme cases) end up in the care of social services while it is established which members of the extended family are best placed to bring them up.
If, like me, you shiver with horror at the homes Dickens’s (many) orphans end up in, or you wish that the Weasleys had been given custody of Harry Potter rather than his horrid uncle and aunt, remember that even if you’re a foreign national only planning to be here for a few years you have the right to choose which friends or relations should look after your children if the unimaginable happened, so choose wisely – and then put it in a will.