Where there’s a will there’s a way: Pros and cons of your last testament

MAKING a will is a socially approved of activity like taking exercise. I’m all for it. For other people. It may be irrational to believe that taking exercise or writing a will would kill you, but what about Jim Fixx, I ask you?

He was the guy who almost invented jogging, died at a young age while doing it and probably had his will all neatly done out well in advance of his demise.

Of course, the minute you say that, the fitness fans all shake their heads tolerantly and suggest that he might have died much sooner if he hadn’t kept himself so fit. Which line of argument is called having your cake and eating it, not that the fitness folk would sully their lips with cake.

We now have a State board to encourage us to contribute to pensions, and you can figure an awful lot of people will be contributing to their pensions on this particular Monday, in order to ward off the long scythe-like instrument the Revenue Commissioners use to amputate income and other taxes from us on this date every year. We have a State board because of the huge bulge of older people who are going to live practically forever and who won’t be working to support themselves through their 70s, 80s and 90s.

A couple of years back, a couple of little voices (including mine) raised the possibility that these older people SHOULD be able to work until they keeled over, if still productive, since work is a) fun, b) keeps people connected and diminishes loneliness, c) results in money going into your pocket that doesn’t come out of your nest egg. Now, if you’re young, you don’t think of diminishing nest eggs, but one of the sad concomitants of old age is a rising anxiety about where money is coming from and how diminished is the pension fund providing a buffer against disaster.

The line of thought that older people should keep working after the State pension kicks in is complicated by the rising numbers of the unemployed. People unexpectedly and through no fault of their own made redundant in their 20s or 30s tend to want older people who’ve had their go at serving in the workplace to move right along there and give the next generation a chance. Never mind the fact that the pension funds of many of our older citizens have taken a nosedive, as has the value of their homes. God be with the days (last year, maybe?) when to turn on the radio was to be forced to listen to voices purporting to be happy-clappy pensioners headed off on an overseas trip because of a clever financial institution offering to take a bit of the equity in their home off their hands. Quaint bits of history, those advertisements now are. Any day now, John Bowman will root out one of them from the RTÉ archives as an illustration of the heady days before the Celtic Tiger got mange, hoose and worms.

Whether you have a lot of property or a small diminished pile nobody wants to buy from you, you should, according to John G Murphy and Jason Dunne, make a will. John and Jason have just published a book called Inheritance and Succession, the Complete Irish Guide. In it, they say half the people over 18 in this country haven’t made a will. (Cries offstage of "Boo. Shame.")

"Half of all people in Ireland," they state, "are either continually concerned or very worried about money and about their future." (Cries offstage of "And that was BEFORE the Budget.")

BUT hold, I thought, as I read their book, which has cute Russian dolls with long eyelashes on its cover. Who says this 50% is the same as the other 50%? Maybe the people who are worried sick about their future are the ones who HAVE gone and made their will and find that it has brought them no peace of mind at all. Maybe they’ve made a Leona Helmsley will, leaving all their millions to the dog, and feel guilty about disinheriting everybody else. Perhaps they’re concerned that the dog-disinherited will fight the thing in court after their death. Or — in these volatile times — they worry that what they’ve given to one survivor may have dropped in value so as to amount to an insult, rather than a gift.

For example, allocating the gold charm bracelet to Ailish the Niece and the Fr Jack Hanlon painting to Michael the Colleague may give one a deep secret sense of satisfaction or create extra worries. There’s always the possibility that Ailish wouldn’t be seen dead wearing a charm bracelet and will flog it first chance and that Michael would put the sketch where the sun would bleach it.

I suspect, though, that the 50% who worry about finance may be the ones who are going to pop their clogs intestate, because people who have made wills are ungovernably smug about it. They have an air of having done the world a service. I don’t see it, myself. Because of ineradicable traces of socialism, I worry about inheritance. Poverty is inherited, as is wealth. If you’re born into a family whose finances, in that great Irish euphemism, are "comfortable", you’re likely to be kept nourished, clean and educated. That, combined with your own energies, should keep you going for the rest of your life, without the added benefit of inheriting the family house and — if you’re really lucky — investment portfolio. The probated will, it could be suggested, serves to perpetuate social inequity down through the generations.

And before you write to the Editor, yelling that if you didn’t inherit the family house, how the hell could you afford to keep your Dad in the nursing home where his stroke put him a couple of years back, I know. You have a point. A more painfully personal point than the proposition that inheriting wealth just because you were born into X family rather than Y family is unjust.

There might be some fun in writing a will if you could disinherit someone just for spite, but according to Inheritance and Succession — The Complete Irish Guide, it’s not that easy to disinherit those close to you. My formidable next-door neighbour, who did her will 25 years ago and changed it once since then, was genuinely shocked to hear that I hadn’t parcelled out what I own in a formal document for distribution after I snuff it.

"Even if you only have a wheelbarrow, you don’t want five people fighting over it," she said severely. "You don’t have a licence on tomorrow. None of us has."

I do have a wheelbarrow. I went out and looked at it after she’d gone. It didn’t look to me like a wheelbarrow two people would fight over, never mind five. But I take her point. I’ll definitely make a will. And give the wheelbarrow to one specific person — whether they want it or not.

Wheelbarrows are easy. It’s who to inflict the two cats on is the problem.