How to cope with being disinherited
By psychotherapist Wendy Bristow
Ask yourself, ‘What meaning am I making from this?’ It may not be quite accurate. We tend to equate money with love – especially in wills. Try to separate the financial facts from the emotional meanings you’re drawing from them.
Avoid ‘black-and-white’ thinking. In pain and crisis, we regress to all-or-nothing: ‘My whole childhood must have been a lie’; ‘She hated me all along.’ Try to allow nuance into your thinking, as that is how real life is: ‘There were good times’; ‘He loved me but he was weak’; ‘He married the wrong person’; ‘He probably barely gave it any thought.’
Stay open to other possibilities. It may be that the deceased person did not see money or possessions as an expression of love but simply wore a business hat, took tax laws into account and put the resources where there seemed most need. It could be thoughtlessness or pressure from a third party; it may have nothing to do with you but reflect his or her relationship with someone else (perhaps you are too close to an ex?). Families are complicated – and few people are either all bad or all good.
Don’t judge yourself by it. Be very wary of drawing negative conclusions about yourself as a consequence of the will (such as ‘I must be unlovable’; ‘My half-siblings must be great and I’m lacking’). If you feel that this is impacting on your self-esteem, consider seeking counselling.
Talk to others. Don’t bottle up emotions or feel that complaining about a will may seem greedy or unseemly. The inability to talk it through may make you more prone to channelling your emotion into negative thoughts or even acts that you will regret. Ask someone neutral to think with you and share their perspectives. (A partner, children or other family members may be too involved in the family dynamics and financial implications to be entirely objective.)
Contain the fallout. Family feuds can last for generations, with cousins, grandparents and grandchildren never meeting because people fell out over a will years previously. If a family member has acted terribly, that doesn’t mean their children are terrible, too. Make your best effort to keep a relationship with as many family members as you can – and don’t hand on the anger to your children.
‘Getting nothing in his will – not even any kind of keepsake – was devastating,’ says Jenny. ‘It was as if all the years where we thought time had healed had never happened. Instead, you think of all the small hurts, the signs of what was to come, that we’d brushed aside. Dad had never spent a Christmas with us since the day he left. He often forgot our birthdays – whereas he always took his other children for meals on theirs. The will was final proof of what we really knew but never acknowledged: he loved us less.’
London-based psychotherapist Wendy Bristow began her training as a Cruse counsellor and has experience of clients reeling from unexpected wills. ‘One of the first things we’re told is that while you may think that bereavement will bring a family together, more often than not it can drive a wedge,’ she says.
‘The expression “maddened by grief” can be very accurate,’ she continues. ‘Death is an impossible thing to get your head around anyway – and at the same time you’re having to manage tricky family relationships, organise funerals and make practical decisions. Everyone can go a little bit crazy and if there’s something unexpected in the will, it can be very hard to think straight.’
The fact that any legal challenge usually needs to start within six months from the grant of probate means that decisions may be made under huge stress when emotions are sky high. ‘Going along to a solicitor and launching a battle can be a way of translating all the grief, hurt, anger and rejection into action,’ says Bristow. ‘It’s something you can do to express what you’re feeling – and also a way of punishing the people who have been favoured. But it can be punishing to you as well.
‘Ask yourself whether this is the best way to protect yourself. It means you’ll be living the issue for months or years in a protracted legal battle.’
Bristow advises anyone in this position to do a lot of talking first and, most crucially, to challenge the meanings they are drawing from the will – ‘this means he never loved me’, ‘everything has been a lie’. (See box, right.)
‘There are numerous explanations – pressure from a current partner, a desire to punish the ex, a belief that you don’t need the money, simply not wanting to rock the boat,’ she says. ‘Try not to get stuck in black-and-white thinking as it will make it very hard to move forward.’
‘The way to avoid all of this, if you’re the person making the will, is to talk about it before you die,’ urges Chris Partington. ‘Writing a separate “letter of wishes”, which sets out exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing, can prevent a messy legal battle – but it’s still one step removed from actually saying it. We don’t like talking about money and we don’t like talking about death. But if you’re brave enough to do it, there’ll be no nasty surprises, no misunderstandings, no unanswered questions when you’re gone.’