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Where there’s no will…

Where there's a will... by Lahra Carey

We are privileged to have Lahra Carey share her very personal story with us. It is incredibly giving and thoughtful of her, and we hope it makes you stop, think and act. Because nobody ever thinks it will happen to them. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us Lahra.

I’m standing in the cereal aisle of the supermarket a few short months after losing my husband of almost 17 years suddenly in a freak paragliding accident.

I am not ok. I haven’t been ok since my life shattered on an ordinary summer’s day at the Victorian coastal town where we spent every summer.

I am on the phone listening to a lawyer I’ve never met tell me the civil suit I’ve had to file against my three tween kids – a consequence of Ben dying intestate, isn’t going well.

Everything since Ben died has been surreal and difficult. But this news pushes me over the edge and I start to yell at my lawyer – even though it’s not her fault there’s no Will.

It’s our fault, and mostly mine. I never wanted to talk about who would take the kids if we died together.

I’ve discovered that this is the same for most couples – the idea of someone else bringing up your kids is unthinkable.

There was a document whipped up by Ben (a former lawyer) before a trip to Bali when our son was six months old that explained our plans in the case of our deaths.

I’d not given much thought to what would happen if only one of us died – we both ran our own businesses, we were legally married and the small amount of thought I’d given to this scenario had me assume that what we jointly owned would naturally revert to me.

It turns out I was wrong. I discovered that the document we both co-signed 13 years ago was not in fact a recognised Will. It hadn’t been legally executed, and neither our co-signatures clearly indicating our wishes, nor my many years of marriage would make any difference. I now had to go through probate to access anything I previously owned. And when I say anything, I mean everything.

For example, Ben was the primary cardholder on our joint bank accounts, so my access to funds was limited to money in my work-related accounts. But the worst discovery was that the way we had structured the ownership of our house meant a portion of Ben’s half of our house reverted to our kids.

It seemed there was no option but to take civil action against my own children to avoid issues for them down the track like taxes they would be responsible for and first home buyers grants they would be excluded from.

And now that process was going badly, with the lawyer I was paying to represent my children making things difficult causing me to burst into tears in front of the Corn Flakes section at Woolworths.

I was a widow at 47 – now solely responsible for my 13 year old son and our 12 year old twin daughters. The grief was unimaginable – the worst kind of pain I’ve ever experienced. The last thing I wanted to focus on was money.

The first people to get anxious were my kids – closely followed by the bank.

Were we going to be ok? I had no idea. I made promises to my children I had no idea whether I could keep.

Add to that the trauma of losing my longstanding accountant and business advisor to a very short battle with cancer just months after Ben’s death. Unending, complicated bureaucracy and confusion doubled.

At some point in the middle of chaos and confusion, I turned to one of the many lawyers in my life – an expert in Wills, and asked “how often do you update your Will?” He looked at me shamefacedly before admitting that making a Will wasn’t something he had managed to get around to doing. Mortality, it turns out is something that happens to other people.

Once I had gone through probate, I began slowly unpicking the life Ben and I had built and understanding the extent of my financial circumstances.

The road back to any sense of normalcy was long, and complicated; my education a very steep learning curve.

I went from having no idea what an electricity bill was worth (I’d never organised to pay one), to independently owning and managing all the components of my life.

I built myself a team of trusted advisors, I executed a new Will, and I learned how to take care of myself and the kids.

The heartbreaking thing is that it was all so avoidable. Ben took responsibility for our financial management, and he was proud of the way he looked after us. The idea that he had left us unprotected and vulnerable would have pained him greatly.

I know it’s unpleasant to consider your mortality, but the option is death by a thousand cuts.

Things to consider:

  • Talk to your partner or spouse about what you would both want to happen in case of your death. It’s not a pleasant conversation, but you will both know you’ve looked after one another.
  • Make sure you have a current Will – and update it as things change.
  • Ensure you structure your estate in a way you both understand.
  • Have a trusted financial advisor who understand both the structure of your estate as well as your intentions.

Lahra is an entrepreneurial business builder, communications specialist, and experienced non executive board director. She helps businesses tell their stories through her PR consultancy Lahra Carey Media & Communications, trains executives to deal with the media through NewsFlash Media, and assists organisations manage their crisis communications via Crisis Control.

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