What Downton Abbey can teach us about dying without a will

Where there's a will, there's a way.

Downton Abbey devotees and law students alike must have heaved a collective sigh of relief with the return to our screens of that compulsive lesson in legal history, cunningly disguised as a period costume drama.

Those who have not been drawn into the mystery and intrigue of the occupants of Downton Abbey, who seem to have suffered more communal misfortune than one would reasonably expect of an extended family (but no doubt a requirement for the television ratings), can stop reading now.

All others, take note for our first tutorial, of the references to the outdated (even then) but shortly to be amended laws on intestacy (Matthew failed to make a will) resulting in Lady Mary’s diminished share in the estate and looming spectre of heavy death duties.

While death at an early age is always tragic and as was observed of Matthew, he anticipated being around for many years thence, what happens on intestacy generally seems to come as something of a shock.

The rules, which determine the distribution on a person’s death of any of his or her property not governed by a valid will, are largely contained in the Administration of Estates Act 1925 (spookily coinciding roughly with the current Downton period - will Lord Grantham vote on it in the House of Lords?) and the Intestates’ Estates Act 1952.

By and large these have not kept pace with the requirements or expectations of modern family life. Back in 2009 the Law Commission published a consultation paper on various aspects of the rules, some of which have been included in the Inheritance and Trustees’ Powers Bill 2013 which is working its way through the House of Lords as I write.

Under the current provisions, however, in the absence of a valid will by Matthew, because his estate is likely to have been valued at more than £250,000 and he was survived by a wife and child, Lady Mary's entitlement today would still be limited. She could claim for herself a statutory legacy of £250,000 and all of Matthew's personal chattels.

The balance of Matthew's estate would then be divided in two with Lady Mary receiving a life interest (ie income only) in one half of the estate. The gorgeous George would be entitled to the other half of the estate on statutory trusts and the half of the estate in which his mother has a life interest, on her death.

This was probably not the result she and Matthew (or indeed Lord Grantham) were hoping to achieve by virtue of their collective and cumulative efforts in the previous three series. Do note, however, that in certain circumstances, the provisions of intestacy can be varied in the same way as one can vary a will.

However, in my experience what is sometimes more surprising for clients is not necessarily the effects of intestacy but the fact that despite having gone to the trouble of officially anticipating one’s demise and providing for it (as far as one's property is concerned) in a considered manner, one can find oneself inadvertently rendered intestate.

For example, if a testator divorces (or ends a civil partnership) his will takes effect as if his former spouse or civil partner had died before him, subject to express contrary intention. Similarly, marriage revokes a will unless it was drafted expressly in contemplation of the said nuptials. Of course, as a solicitor, Matthew should have known this, but perhaps he took too great a heed of the adage 'A solicitor who acts for himself has a fool for a client.'

Other topics for discussion in future tutorials might be the content of Nanny West’s employment contract (did she breach a condition that both charges should be treated equally?), the grounds for divorce in other jurisdictions or the extent to which the estate could qualify for agricultural, business or even heritage property for inheritance taxes. Who ever thought Downton was an education?

Sophie Mazzier is counsel at City private wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP

This piece first appeared on Spear's Magazine

Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era