Where There’s a Will … There’s a Dispute

If you’ve had your beady, greedy eye on a particular item in your great-aunt’s jewellery box, you might be disappointed to find, when her will is read, that it’s been bequeathed to your sister. And if a will is not made, divvying up the family jewels can result in terrible rows, as KATHERINE O’REGAN finds out …

“I have made no provision in this my Will for my sister, Lee B Radziwill, for whom I have great affection, because I have already done so during my lifetime. I do wish, however to remember her children …” Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, in death, as in her life, made waves. She left the bulk of her estate to her children and various bequests for friends, employees and other relatives, including her step-brother Hugh “Yusha” Auchincloss, to whom she left her share of the family home Hammersmith Farm.

But, as a new book, The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters, (HarperCollins) reveals, for her sister Lee there was nothing; not a trinket, not even their father’s writing desk which Lee had given to Jackie after inheriting it from “Black Jack” Bouvier. Though the sisters were very close, their relationship was complex and competitive, especially around men. Authors Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger suggest Jackie had never got over their mother Janet bequeathing the proceeds of the sale of her Washington house to Lee. Writer Gore Vidal, related to the siblings through marriage, was in no doubt as to her intentions, noting, “now, from the grave, Jackie inserts the knife”.

Whatever the truth behind the former First Lady’s actions, the story illustrates the power of one’s last testament to make a statement, after the human voice has been silenced. The saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Actually there are two ways: you can continue to spread hate and sow division long after you have drawn your last breath, or your legacy can be love.

My mother, who in life was a fantastic but complicated woman, to our surprise and having changed it many times over the years, ultimately left the simplest of wills, consigning all her worldly goods equally to her three daughters. We each have different facets of her multi-hued personality and so in the dispersal of her beautiful collection of paintings, furniture and jewellery, the division was blissfully free of strife. My elder sister opted for Mummy’s appreciation of the avant-garde, the littlest one loves all thing Art Deco, while I’m drawn to the classic and romantic.

So, happily, while her tempestuous personality ignited many furious rows in her lifetime (and we were grimly amused by her deathbed admonition: “don’t fight with each other”) her will spread only sweetness and light, for which in the immense sadness of her passing, we were profoundly grateful. Though she did, in characteristic fashion, leave one enigma in the shape of two wedding bands. She had only married once. (As far as we know.)

The leaving behind of precious and/or sentimental pieces, particularly jewellery, can wield great power and considerable emotional heft. A colleague’s aunt, whose own mother very pointedly left her nothing (though she had been a dutiful daughter) leaving her to a decade-long rift with her siblings, is obsessed with divvying up her jewels, mischievously promising to gift a particularly special solitaire to two of her nieces on a time-share basis.

One legal eagle tells the story of drafting a will for a lady who carefully set out a list of various valuable gems – diamond rings, emerald earrings, necklaces and bracelets and the like which she wanted listed in her will to specifically leave to her sister. When the solicitor commented that it appeared to be a valuable list and hoped she had it all well insured, the lady replied, “oh no, I don’t actually have any of those items, my sister is very greedy and it will drive her mad searching everywhere to try and find them.”

Claire-Laurence Mestrallet, senior jewellery specialist at Adam’s on St Stephen’s Green, has a lot of experience in dealing with consignments of fabulous gems and recalls “a woman who collected a lot of jewellery, who got cancer and promised her closest friend a pair of beautiful earrings, worth about ¤3,000. When she passed away it was discovered she had not made any will. Her friend – and they had been inseparable – had to buy them from the estate.” It seems unfair but Mestrallet takes the phlegmatic view that “she got them for a good price and the funds from the estate were donated to Cancer Research so she didn’t mind. Also she had a lovely memory of her friend.” And a stunning addition to her own collection.

When a very wealthy Irish industrialist died a couple of years ago, the vast financial assets were divided among his five children. “We were all then invited to select some of his old jumpers, shirts and ties as keepsakes”, one of his daughters recalls. However, when it came to the disposal of the exquisite and extravagant collection of furniture and art amassed by her late father, his offspring were informed by the executors that they could bid for them at auction.

Sheena Grattan, chair of the Northern Ireland Branch of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) and formerly senior lecturer in succession law at Queen’s University’ School of Law, observes that “any lawyer’s advice is that you are better having a will than dying intestate”, though she adds, “making a will doesn’t exclude all family disputes.”

The inheritors of course can do as they wish once they have their property. In our case, we gave various mementoes to our mother’s relatives and friends and tried to be appropriate in their distribution. A Victorian teapot was rapturously received by her country cousin, a farmer’s wife, and it fell to me to pass on her Tiffany silver champagne swizzle stick to her best friend – a Manhattan maven – who simultaneously cried and laughed, remembering all the fun they had down the decades, over innumerable bottles of bubbles.

Not everyone is swayed by sentiment. “In our September auction,” Claire-Laurence Mestrallet remarks, “I had a beautiful diamond necklace which was sold by a daughter who inherited it from her late mother.” The magnificent piece, designed circa 1955 by the legendary French designer Mauboussin, is described in Adam’s catalogue as “two graduating rows of round brilliant and baguette-cut diamonds” and rather like something out of Henry James, labelled“Property of a Continental Lady.” The estimate was €120,000 – €180,000. “It sold for €150,000,” says Mestrallet, who while acknowledging it was a beautiful piece, at 53 carats, says “it was not something you would wear every day. I’m sure the daughter kept other stuff that was of more sentimental value.”

One Dublin family decided to mark the occasion of their redoubtable mother’s 70th birthday with a ring bearing all five children’s birthstones. The gems included the matriarch’s which was a diamond. Upon her death, 15 years later, said ring was inherited by her only daughter but such was the family animus over the will, that the band was melted down and the stones returned to each child. The daughter got to keep the diamond.

In her novel Strong Poison, the renowned English crime author Dorothy L Sayers wrote: “there is something about wills which brings out the worst side of human nature. People who under ordinary circumstances are perfectly upright and amiable, go as curly as corkscrews and foam at the mouth, whenever they hear the words ‘I devise and bequeath’’.

An image of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and sister Lee Radziwill in 1962, from The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters, HarperCollins, by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. JFK Presidential Library.

She has a point: the stories of spite from the after life are legion. A misogynistic American lawyer, TM Zink, who died in 1930, admitted to having an intense dislike for women. He left $5 to his daughter and nothing to his wife, but stipulated that $35,000 be put into a trust fund for 75 years, to be used at the end of its term (with the accrued interest) to build a “womanless library” which he decreed, be free of books and publications by female authors, with a sign above the door stating “no women allowed”. The attorney’s daughter successfully challenged the will, so this fiasco never saw the light of day, as she and her mother inherited the estate.

Billionaire hotelier Leona Helmsley left $12m to her pet dog while excluding two of her grandsons from her will. The aptly named Trouble’s inheritance was reduced to $2m when a judge ruled the original legacy exceeded the amount needed to care for the Maltese, though the kidnapping and death threats continued.

The explosive potential offered by legacies was famously exemplified in Shakespeare’s disposal of his “second-best bed” to his wife Anne Hathaway, but my favourite literary legacy belongs to Heinrich Heine. The German poet stipulated that after his death his widow Matilda could inherit his estate on the condition that she remarry, so that “there will be at least one man to regret my death”.

A lawyer friend pointed out that the law of succession rests on the cold fact that you can’t take it with you. And yet you can be so eloquent with what you leave behind, or don’t, as the case may be. “It is very interesting the psychology of testation,” remarks Sheena Grattan, who is also the author of Succession Law in Northern Ireland, “that human impulse to be immortal from beyond the grave, ‘the dead hand’, as it is called.”

A great initiative was started in the UK some years ago when groups of law firms and charities joined forces and November was designated Wills Month. The idea is that a qualified solicitor will draft and witness your will and instead of paying the legal fees, you are invited to make a donation – usually of £100 for single testament and £150 for a couple’s will – to one of a selected band of charities. Whether a charitable donation would focus the mind to be similarly disposed to one’s loved ones is of course a moot point. Such a scheme existed here, according to the Citizens Advice Bureau, but was discontinued in 2009. Now that it looks like the good times are back, this would surely be a good time to reinstate the benevolent practice.

The English writer and television producer Daisy Goodwin wrote a very powerful and moving article a few years ago about the emotional fallout caused by her mother’s will. Jocasta Innes was a celebrated interior designer, cook and writer (The Pauper’s Cookbook and Paint Magic) with a chaotic personal life. Goodwin explained “my mother had four children, my brother and me by her first marriage and my two half-sisters by her second. In her will she left me a small cash sum and a number of personal items, but left the remainder of her estate, including the house, to my other siblings, with the biggest share going to my youngest sister. In the will, it reads along the lines of: ‘I leave my daughter Daisy out of the estate, not because I love her any the less but because I think she has less need of it’”.

Goodwin argued that while she understood her mother’s logic – “I was her, materially at least, most prosperous child” – she felt very hurt. “When it happened, I was sideswiped. I realised that in a very primal way I felt left out.” While Daisy understood that Jocasta was trying to do the right thing as she saw it, it nevertheless left her feeling that “she left me out of her will because she loved me less. When a beloved parent dies, what is being parcelled out may look like goods and chattels, but it feels a lot like love.”

Let’s conclude on an upbeat note with a gesture from beyond the grave that spoke volumes. The comedian Jack Benny, who died in 1974 after an enduringly happy 50- year marriage, left instructions in his last testament that the local florist deliver a single long-stemmed red rose every day to his widow Mary Livingstone. This romantic imperative was maintained until Mary’s death in 1983.

In writing a will and leaving a legacy that will speak long after we have ceased to, it’s important to remember the poet Philip Larkin’s words, “what will remain of us is love”.

Katherine O’Regan

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