Inheritance is common theme which is used in popular culture. Perhaps, this is due to the ‘human interest’ factor, or because it is a relatable subject for anyone who has either made a will or has had to deal with the administration of a loved one’s estate.
It is also easy to understand why inheritance appears in crime novels, films and TV programmes, as it can provide a financial motive for a crime or explain why a family dispute has arisen.
Songs which mention inheritance tend to be less common, but one recent exception to this is Taylor Swift's recent hit, Anti-Hero, (from her latest album Midnights) which contains the following verse:
“I have this dream my daughter-in-law kills me for the money
She thinks I left them in the will
The family gathers around and reads it and someone screams out
‘She's laughing up at us from hell’.”
The song’s video elaborates on this further, by depicting a fictional scene of a family learning about the contents of their mother’s (Taylor Swift’s) will. The ‘children’ discover that they are left “13 cents” from the estate and that the beach house will become a “cat sanctuary”. The ‘family’ speculate that the will may contain a ‘secret encoded message’ which will lead them to a hidden fortune, only to discover from a postscript in the will that this is not the case. This leads to a family argument where they blame each other for the contents of the will.
So, does the fictional will scenario in Taylor’s Swift’s song reflect any real-life inheritance issues which can arise in England & Wales? Below, we consider each line of the above verse and whether it may be based in inheritance ‘fact or fiction.’
Inheritance as a motive for crime
(“I have this dream my daughter-in-law kills me for the money”)
Cases of people being physically harmed so that someone can obtain an inheritance are still relatively rare in the UK, but they do sometimes occur. For example, in October 2022, Jemma Mitchell was found guilty of killing her friend, Mee Kuen Chong, after Ms Chong had apparently changed her mind about paying Ms Mitchell around £200,000 for repairs to Ms Mitchell’s family home.
Ms Mitchell also attempted to forge Ms Chong’s will in order to obtain around 95% of her estimated £700,000 estate. It was reported that the fake will was prepared on Ms Mitchell’s computer and had been created on a date after Ms Chong had died. A genuine will was also apparently found at Ms Chong’s home, which left her estate to her church, family members and charity.
Another infamous case of a forged will being linked to a murder is a will prepared by the late Dr Harold Shipman, who was convicted of murdering 15 of his patients (though it has been reported that Dr Shipman may have actually been responsible for many more deaths).
Dr Shipman’s crimes came to light after he forged the will of one of his elderly victims, Kathleen Grundy, in an attempt to inherit her estate of over £380,000. Ms Grundy’s daughter, Angela Woodruff (a solicitor), became suspicious when she discovered the contents of Ms Grundy’s alleged will. A Police investigation into Dr Shipman followed and it was discovered that Dr Shipman had forged Mrs Grundy’s alleged will on a typewriter, which was later found in his surgery. The investigation into Dr Shipman continued and the extent of his crimes were then revealed.
(“She thinks I left them in the will”)
Assuming that someone will receive an inheritance can cause family disputes and real problems for an estate.
In England & Wales, a person making a will (known as a testator) can usually leave their estate to whoever they like and they may also change their will over time. If someone makes financial plans based upon an expectation to inherit (rather than based upon what they actually later receive from an estate), this can often prompt will and estate disputes.
It is also important to note that, if certain close relatives or financial dependants are disinherited under a will (or they receive less inheritance than they expected), they may be able to make a claim against the estate for reasonable financial provision under the Inheritance Provision for Family & Dependants Act 1975. This type of claim does not challenge the validity of the will, but it may result in a different distribution of the estate assets.
Reading the will
(“The family gathers around and reads it”)
In many fictional novels and dramas, a family is often summoned to the same location to hear a ‘reading’ of the contents of a relative’s will. This is often a tense moment as people wait to see if they will benefit from the estate and, sometimes, those in attendance are shocked to learn the contents of the will.
In England & Wales the contents of a will are not usually ‘read’ by a lawyer in front of a testator’s family in such a dramatic way. In fact, until a will is admitted to probate, it is not a public document.
However, the executors named in the will would usually be notified that they have been asked to administer the estate, and the beneficiaries named in the will may then be advised about their inheritance. The level of information provided to beneficiaries about the contents of a will can vary. For example, those who are due to receive the majority of the estate assets may receive more information about the contents of a will or an estate than those who are due to receive much smaller legacies.
Interpreting the will
(“…and someone screams out ‘She's laughing up at us from hell’. “)
One contributing factor to will and estate disputes is that people can interpret the contents of a will very differently, and there are instances where the lack of any explanation for the contents of the will can cause suspicion or prompt inheritance disputes.
For example, the lack of a gift to a relative in a will may be interpreted by one person as a sign of disapproval or lack of affection, when it could actually be because the testator only wanted to benefit those relatives in the greatest financial need.
However, there are cases where wills are sometimes used as a means of making a ‘statement’ or offering criticism. For example Anthony Scott’s will stated: "To my first wife Sue, whom I always promised to mention in my will. Hello Sue!”. Poet, Henrich Heine, left his entire estate to his wife, on the condition that she remarried, because “then there will be at least one man to regret my death.”
Making such comments in a will or using it as a means of obtaining retribution might seem tempting. However, it is possible to obtain a copy of a will in England & Wales (once it is admitted to probate) and this means that a private family dispute or personal comments may later become very public.
Disinheriting someone can also cause a legal dispute, affect family relationships and incur unnecessary costs to an estate. It is therefore important to consider that someone may learn about the contents of a will when they are also coping with a bereavement.
Rather than making comments in their will, many testators now choose to leave a separate private document with their will (known as a Memorandum of Wishes), which provides further information to their executors about the reasons for leaving their estate in a particular way. That document is not published when the will is admitted to probate and it is therefore a much less public way of a testator commenting on their will or their family circumstances.
Whilst Taylor Swift’s verse about inheritance is fictional, it does reflect some of the real issues which can be involved in inheritance disputes. Avoiding such disputes is not always possible, but there are ways to try to minimise the risk of them occurring.
It is therefore important for anyone who thinks that their will may prompt an inheritance claim to obtain specialist legal advice when making (or updating) their will.
Anyone who is considering challenging a will or making a claim against an estate should also consider obtaining specialist legal advice as soon as possible, as certain time limits can apply to certain inheritance claims.