Finding Alice – lessons to learn from TV about estates and planning
8 February 2021 by James Bird
Nowadays you can find programmes about literally anything and during these tough times of lockdown everyone seems to be spending more time sat in front of their TV’s. Even during lockdown TV channels are managing to release new programmes and one that has inspired this blog is the ITV drama “Finding Alice”. Unfortunately, to highlight so many of the important issues it raises in the show, there will be spoilers ahead (you have been warned). However, being a drama based around the events of losing a loved one, this certainly has struck a chord with my career as a Wills and Probate Solicitor. There are a variety of topics that it raises for consideration and I have separated these into smaller easier sections to focus on.
Losing a loved one
This is universally one of the most difficult things to do, especially during these times when we are so restricted in being able to physically be present with friends and families. Unfortunately, the global pandemic has led to many losses but hopefully light is at the end of the tunnel.
One thing that the TV drama really has brought to light however is just how important it really is to ensure that you have your affairs in order. Obviously one of the most important aspects of this is to make sure that you do have a Will in place. But not only this, it really does help those you leave behind by ensuring that you have left an idea of your assets and accounts in an easy to find place. It is hard enough to grieve for loved ones, but to then add the increased stress of having to play detective and track down assets really does not help the process.
In Finding Alice, the drama is based around the loss of a husband (Harry) who left behind his wife (Alice), parents and children. Unfortunately, it did not appear that he had made too many preparations for his untimely passing. Alice has to dig deep to find out exactly what he had and also the state things had been left in. No doubt if he had been more prepared it would have alleviated many of the concerns and a lot of the stress caused (though it might be a bit of a shorter drama series).
Of course, it is also important to raise that the show does portray the emotional and mental struggles that come with losing a loved one as well and that support can come from anywhere, be it family members or bereavement support groups (with a variety of colourful characters in the show). There is a variety of support and services available to everyone no matter the circumstances.
Having a Will
No matter where you look you will always find adverts and people saying just how important it is to have a Will, and they are not wrong! Having a Will in place means that you have control over where your assets go. Otherwise, without a Will, they pass by the intestacy rules which might not be what the deceased’s wishes are.
Without a Will, the person is deemed to die intestate and as such the law states who then inherits an estate (the intestacy rules). Depending on the surviving family, this could pass to spouses, children, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews etc. Families are often complicated and this is not always what someone might wish.
In the show, Harry never left a Will and we also find that Alice and Harry were never legally married. This means that under the intestacy rules Alice never legally benefitted from Harry’s sole name assets, instead, they passed straight to his children (one or more of whom they did not know about until his passing). Even though Alice and Harry lived together for such a long time, as if they were husband and wife, and Alice thought she would be the beneficiary, the reality was very different. This leads to incredible difficulties for all the family.
Making a Will is just one part of future planning. You should also think about your assets as a whole, including what they are, whose names they are held in and even their value. When making a Will with a Solicitor this is something that you can also receive advice on as well.
Inheritance tax is a phrase that nobody ever likes to hear. When making a Will this is usually a very serious topic of consideration. There are allowances and exemptions which can be claimed on assets in certain scenarios but people are not always aware of just how much tax their estate could be liable for.
Something else to consider as well is that an estate consists of not only what you own at the time of your passing but also can include any gifts which the deceased has made in the 7 years prior to their death. If they are substantial enough this could mean tax is even payable on the gifts and it might not be the estate that has to pay the tax.
In Finding Alice, not only did Harry not leave a Will but some of his estate planning could be considered questionable. Although the lack of Will as mentioned above means there was no control over where his assets passed, we can also see that some of Harry’s gifts such as putting the property in his parent’s name has left them with a significant tax bill – a key part of the storyline. As Alice even says “sometimes it feels like losing someone is as much about the heart-wrenching loss as it is the bureaucracy and money” which unfortunately can feel that way at times without proper planning.
Sometimes included in Wills, sometimes left inside notes and other times not communicated at all. Funeral wishes are sometimes overlooked (especially by the younger generation). You don’t have to be incredibly detailed with these but at least discuss these with your loved ones. It is possible to arrange pre-paid plans with companies which are becoming more popular nowadays with increasing costs of funerals. These not only give you peace of mind that your wishes will be carried out but also helps ease some of the stress of organising a funeral for your loved ones at a difficult time.
It is also important to realise that everyone’s wishes are different. Whilst burial or cremation are the most common choices, some people wish to opt for a donation to medical science or even more unusual requests. Not all of these however can be so easily carried out and in many instances, arrangements must be put in place long in advance. If you do have specific wishes for your body then it really is important sometimes to start making arrangements early on.
Once again this is another issue raised in Finding Alice. With Harry passing away so suddenly, the family find they have no idea of what his funeral wishes were and it does give rise to some conflict amongst them. Alice decides to bury him in a more unusual location but does find that in carrying this out there are further issues with regulations and red tape which only adds further stress to the difficult time. Obviously, it is a drama and some aspects may be exaggerated slightly but there is an underlying truth to it and it is a good way to show just how important it is to really think about funeral wishes and communicate these before you pass away.
Administering an estate
Leaving a Will without a doubt helps in dealing with an estate as does the estate planning during your lifetime. Not only does it alleviate a lot of concerns and stress but it can help reduce administration costs for the estate as well if professional assistance is needed. Being open with each other about assets is always a key starting point during your lifetime but if you do have other assets that are not so openly discussed, make sure you leave information about them somewhere that can easily be found. It also is important to ensure that you know who will be administering your estate.
Finding Alice follows the family through not only the mysterious passing of Harry but also follows them through some of the administration of the estate. Alice soon learns that everything was not as it seemed about her husband and his affairs which has a detrimental effect on the family both financially and emotionally. Alice even finds that although her husband might have been well off financially, due to the setup of his assets she is unable to access anything straight away leaving her in a desperate financial situation. She is basically locked out of the assets because she is not legally entitled to deal with the estate and apply for the Grant of Probate (or Letters of Administration to be more accurate).
Something else the programme does highlight is that the administration of an estate is a long process and is not something that can be resolved overnight. Where a Grant of Probate (or Letters of Administration) is required, it can take months before any money is released (depending on the estate). The show at one point suggests it could take 6 – 9 months. In today’s current circumstances with delays caused by Covid-19 and lockdown, this is becoming much longer and there is nothing that can be done to expedite matters. Another reason why it is so important to make plans and arrangements during your lifetime.
What can you do to avoid many of the issues faced in the Finding Alice drama?
Although some aspects of the drama might be a bit exaggerated, I can say that in my time practicing I have seen instances where loved ones really do not know as much as they thought and it really does make dealing with loss so much harder. It doesn’t need to be incredibly organised or detailed but simply a list/spreadsheet of assets with information such as who they are with, references/account numbers and a rough idea of value really does go a long way in helping ease the administration stress.
Whilst most of the time I would watch TV to lose myself and not think too much about what is happening around me, I cannot deny that Finding Alice really did do a great job of just showing how important some aspects of estate planning and preparation really are. It is a tough time in particular during these times of lockdown and whilst many of us are stuck at home, it is the perfect time to do some of these. It might be difficult to maybe talk about funeral wishes right now but putting a Will in place is much easier than you would think with a solicitor. Using a Solicitor they can also discuss more about your estate (and if particularly complex refer you to someone who can give more detailed advice financial advice). So much can be done during these times from the comfort of your own home to give peace of mind. Not only can we advise and assist on administering estates and making Lasting Powers of Attorney but we also run our free Will Campaign as well so please do contact us for any assistance. A few weeks of thinking about these things can then give you peace of mind for years to come.
If you would like to know more about any of the issues raised in this blog and how we can help you protect yourself and your loved ones, please get in touch with FJG’s Wills, Life Planning & Probate team, call 01206 700113, or email [email protected].