13 January 2021

Taboo?

By Miranda Marshall, Director, Hayes + Storr.

It is oft said that the Victorians were obsessed with death, but would not talk about sex, and that, in contrast, the western world of the 21st Century is obsessed with sex but will not talk about death. The pandemic is changing that, somewhat.

The euphemisms of death are often hilarious. When I first started out as a private client lawyer, people would talk about ‘losing your mother’ which made me think of the ‘departed’ (there we go again!) rather like a toddler who had wandered off. In his book of the same name, Evelyn Waugh in the 1940s made fun of the term ‘The Loved One’, which has now entered mainstream language, even to the extent of being uttered without a hint of irony by Boris Johnson. In our modern fluid and blended society, the term is useful, rather like actors who call everyone ‘darling’ because they can’t remember names.

In 2011 the first ‘Death Café’ was held in the UK to provide an opportunity for people to ‘gather to eat cake, drink tea and talk about death’ in a positive way and now there are 10,000 such ‘cafés’ around the world, including online. A bit of a niche for most, probably. .

Making the right plans now to manage ‘the inevitable’ gives peace of mind and setting out your wishes makes it easier ‘for those ‘left behind’ ‘when the time comes’.

Unsurprisingly, in 2020-1 there has been a big increase in Will-making. Ancient Romans considered the success of their life to be measured by the respect and love with which they were remembered posthumously and put much effort into preparation. It was an anathema for them to die without a Will, for that very reason.

Why therefore do some people take the line that ‘They can fight over it all when I’m gone, because I won’t be here to see it!’?

Making a Will is the best way to think about the legacy (in the widest sense) that you will leave and how your worldly wealth will be settled – well or badly, it’s your choice.

Please chose the right executors: they should be people you trust and whom you can rely upon to do the job, and to do it well. They should get on, but need not be close. Best ask them too, so it doesn’t come as a surprise from which they recoil, leaving no one to do the job.

Your funeral, sadly currently a shadow of pre-Covid, too needs careful thought. The Victorians would have been mortified at the utilitarian process of the last year; certainly, no paid mourners, as in Oliver Twist.

Think about whether you want cremation or burial. The former requires two doctors to certify your death as there are no remains to be dug up later (maybe, I have watched too much ‘Silent Witness’ and other police dramas?). Organ donation rules have changed and there is now an opt-out (rather than an opt-in) system. Transplant surgeons want healthy young organs, so those of octogenarians are generally surplus to requirement.

Prepaid funeral plans mean that no one can skimp on your funeral and pocket the funds after your death. There are usually extras and someone makes money out of selling them but they have their appeal. Make sure you go to a reputable independent undertaker to get yours!

Digital assets can easily be overlooked. Keeping paper records is considered safer, generally, than electronic data; so, hand a sheet with the information including passwords, to your solicitor to be stored with your Will. Regular updating is important.

If it could be a problem, rather than ignore the risk of a claim against your estate, grasp the nettle and discuss it with your solicitor. Careful noting of your thinking and background are all useful defensive ammunition, should a dispute arise. Making a Will with a good and specialist solicitor is eternally fundamental, but especially where there is an inheritance dispute waiting in the wings.

And remember, in the meantime, enjoy your time on earth!

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