Ajournalist I once worked with came through the swinging doors of the newsroom this day in a suit, ironed. All highly suspicious. It meant either a funeral or court appearance. (Sean, a mad yachtie and flouter of laws, both land and marine, was not averse to the odd skirmish with the authorities, believing everyone needed a hobby.)
This day it was neither. He had been at the solicitor’s office for the reading of his father’s will. His colleagues knew the old man, a lovely bloke when sober, had drunk himself into virtual poverty, so someone asked gently, how’d it go? “Inherited a silver teapot and his love of cricket,’’ he announced, seeming dead pleased. “My brothers all inherited his alcoholism, so I’m miles in front.”
With that dose of Irish black humour, he went back to subediting.
“My aunt died of influenza, so they said. But it’s my belief they done the old woman in … and what become of her new straw hat that should have come to me? Somebody pinched it, and what I say is, them that pinched it, done her in.’’
If you’re a fan of musical My Fair Lady you’ll recognise the words of flower seller Eliza Doolittle, who seemed to be wailing about a straw hat. But her rant was really about entitlement and inheritance, and thanks to Australia’s high property prices, entitlement and inheritance are all the rage.
“It’s like arsenic in a creek after gold mining. The poison goes on for generations.” That’s a lawyer I know who deals with disputes over inheritance. He says Australian capital cities’ booming house prices are leading to an increase in clients at his door. He advises friends: “Walk away and don’t look back. Forget about the money. Go and live a contented life.”
He says legal disputes usually destroy your closest relationships and those of your children with their cousins and aunts and uncles. “It’s a violent seismic rift in families.” To clients he doesn’t particularly like he says: “You have an excellent case, let’s go for it!” Of course, Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest woman and patron saint of happy families, should be our guiding light on this.
So, it is refreshing to see there is another way and read the thoughts of one of Australia’s most successful investment bankers and generous donors to the arts, Simon Mordant, recently in a national magazine: “I came from a very middle-class family and the only thing I inherited from my father was cufflinks. I don’t believe in leaving things to people, and we have a great deal of pleasure helping people achieve their ambitions in the arts. I have seen inheritance destroy so many kids. Our son has been brought up to have his own ambitions on his own journey, but we don’t want him sitting there thinking he is going to win Lotto when we die.”
So, what do you plan to leave your kids? For some children, sizeable inherited wealth is a millstone. Just think, your parents were self-made and you were simply handed yours. It’s got to niggle, you know, in between the skiing trips to Aspen. And always there’s that old adage circling: the first generation builds the family fortune. Second generation reaps the benefits of the family fortune. Third generation squanders the family fortune.
Some wealthy parents nip that cycle in the bud. Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick pledged her vast
Once upon a time the poor entertained the rich. Today the rich provide the entertainment as the masses watch the wealthy wail like spoilt toddlers in court
wealth to charity and, when she died in 2004, left nothing in her will for her daughters. Sam Roddick said: “I knew when I was 16 … what we could have got would have been obscene … The culmination of how you adore somebody isn’t what you give them on your death. It’s how you treat them in your life.”
You would think, wouldn’t you, that the more money there is to go around, the less vile and titanic the battles. Yet most inheritance fights grow uglier in direct proportion to how much is up for grabs.
There are some doozies going around in this town. Barristers suing their sisters and brothers. Judges suing their mothers. They sue, claiming “it’s the principle”, sometimes until there is not a cent left of the estate.
Once upon a time the poor entertained the rich. Today the rich provide the entertainment as the masses watch the wealthy wail like spoilt toddlers in court: “It’s not fair. I want my share.”
I reckon parents who believe they have to leave wealth to their children, to give them a leg-up in life, are actually saying: “I don’t think you can cope on your own.”
Nobody owes you anything in life. If you pass on to your children abundant love, a work ethic, a decent moral compass and a solid education, relax, you’ve done enough. You’ve given them the best start. Are you still wanting an inheritance? A mate says he has inherited his parents’ diabetes, dodgy fallen arches, hatred of Shakespeare, myopic eyes and no sense of direction.
Be careful what you wish for.
AND ANOTHER THING …
I’m often sideswiped by the goodness of strangers and from the most unlikely places. Last time I was talking to a bunch of University of Third Agers, I mentioned the work of DVConnect, Queensland domestic violence helpline, and next minute the mob organising the annual Kingfisher Art Show at Salford Waters Retirement Estate, at Victoria Point on Brisbane’s southern bayside, swung into action.
Their 22nd annual art show opens on the night of July 12. All profits go to DVConnect and the show, at Victoria Point, runs until July 17.