At 23, I inherited my dad’s debt - the size of a central London house deposit
I vividly remember having a conversation with my dad six weeks before he died. ‘Do you have your affairs in order?’ I’d asked him one afternoon. ‘You and your brother have nothing to worry about’, he replied. We left it at that. Neither of us wanted to dig deeper into his impending death; it was too difficult to bear, and the subject of Wills and inheritances felt uncomfortable, inappropriate, vulgar. The intricacies of finances and tax arrangements after you die were surely topics for lawyers to resolve. I assumed that Dad would die, I would go to a meeting at a lawyers office, they would do their thing, and I’d occasionally need to sign some paperwork. It would all be over in a few months.
"How wrong I was."
I have spent the last seven years thinking about that afternoon - wishing I had been more considered in that moment, wishing I had encouraged (delicately of course) a specific conversation about what was actually going to happen, what his intentions were, and what the role waiting for me upon his death really entailed.
Dad passed away quite suddenly in 2016 after a short, aggressive illness. While his mental state was declining in his final weeks, he unfortunately became the victim of undue influence. Some of the people around him pressured him to amend his wishes, and one of these people forged his signature on an updated Will. This led to his bank accounts and assets being taken advantage of, and his (already rather modest) financial situation became dire.
I found myself hiring lawyers two days after his funeral, only to then discover he apparently owed hundreds of thousands to his mother - my grandmother. Despite there being little to no documentation for many of these so-called ‘loans’ (a few bank statements were later produced showing transactions that predated my own birth) and despite her never asking for her money back while he was alive, after his death she became adamant that her debts be repaid.
"I had no knowledge of any of this while dad was alive - we didn’t talk about money, and we certainly didn’t talk about debt."
It was a blindsiding shock to grapple with the responsibility of sorting out his finances, particularly alongside processing the raw grief of his death.
I spent the next seven years financing lawyers (which was a challenge in itself as a 23 year old on a starter salary), painfully negotiating with family members, and learning the intricacies of Wills, inheritances, loans, and mortgages. Pouring over all this technical knowledge and deciphering the foreign world of legal correspondence at the end of my own working day felt like studying for a test that I already knew I’d failed. There were decades of entangled family finances to sort out: inadequate documentation had led to miscommunication about money gifted vs. money loaned, and the line between his personal finances and his company finances had become blurred over the years.
I have learnt so many fundamental lessons about the importance of a good paper trail, the value in having professional, legally certified documentation for each and every financial arrangement you make, and the reasons for talking about this stuff proactively - not just for your own prudent bookkeeping, but also to pave an easier path for those you will one day leave behind.
In the hope that you, or anyone you love, won’t end up in a similar situation - here are the key things I learnt from this ordeal.
Be clear about your intentions (AKA get a Will!)
This is obviously for those you leave behind. If you don’t want to leave them up sh*ts creek when you’re no longer around, write your wishes down, or make a Will. Have it sighted and signed by a lawyer you trust. Set out what you want to happen to the obvious assets and investments you have, but also be specific about any other arrangements you might have. Has someone borrowed money from you? Is there a shared understanding of the interest implications of that loan, or the terms on which it will be repaid? Do these arrangements have an end date? What happens if one party dies? If you hold debt, consider how it will be settled if you die before it’s been paid back. A lot of people don’t realise that you can’t give money or assets to beneficiaries in your Will until this has been done.
Don’t avoid the difficult conversations
As difficult as these conversations can be, having them in advance is far preferable. It’s never too early to start thinking about this, while you are healthy and stable, and without influence from third parties.
Invest in your investments
Take the time, and pay the money, to have your assets and arrangements documented properly. Good lawyers are worth the money. Do your research and speak to the right experts - what might seem a standard matter for a family lawyer, could evolve into a need for property lawyers, tax experts, or forensic accountants. They are experts in their field for a reason - don’t cut corners to avoid costs. Have you left enough aside to pay for these services should you need them?
Think carefully about the people in your circle
People inevitably change when money is involved. In my case, it quickly became beside the point that my grandmother had enough money to see her through the rest of her life twice over. She instead chose to make her son’s debt her grieving grandchildren’s problem - a decision I will forever find difficult to accept. Think about who the beneficiaries of your assets and finances will be. What are their relationships like with each other? What protections and intermediaries can you put in place for when you’re not there, to ensure your intentions are honoured correctly and everyone’s best interests are looked after?
"These situations are rarely just about finances."
As the last seven years has proved, the trifecta of death, estates and money inevitably generates a complex undercurrent of grief and family dynamics. It’s been incredibly painful to disentangle the loss I feel for my dad with the anger I have for the position I found myself in, but deep down I do know that he wasn’t maliciously or deliberately setting me up for financial burden, sleepless nights and irreparable family ties. He was the kind of naive, gloss-over-the-detail kind of person who genuinely believed things would just work themselves out, that everything would be alright, and that a simple fix could surely always be found. Even as he neared his death I don’t think he realised that the mess had become quite this bad, or that it would take quite so long to clean up after he was gone. I think he would’ve hoped that his mother would use her own comfortable financial position to relieve her grandchildren of such an unbearable weight.
I have thought a lot about whether and how to share this experience, in whole or in part, attributed or anonymised. I have been torn between writing about it; romanticising doing so as a therapeutic attempt to heal from this trauma, while at the same time wanting to wash my hands of it completely now that it is finally over. But ultimately, what unfolded the way it did was because of the very reluctance to speak openly about these difficult, traditionally taboo topics. The irony of not speaking up and sharing this story isn’t lost on me - it only makes encouraging these conversations even more important.