Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Christmas trees, markets, baubles and wreathes, wills, testamentary freedom, the Wills Act 1837, Court of Probate Act 1857 – all created by the Victorians almost 200 years ago.
Whether you prefer the Albert Finney or Jim Carey version of the classic tale of Ebenezer’s redemption, the backdrop of Victorian England is hard to miss. It is remarkable to think that the Wills Act that remains the foundation to our wills and probate law actually came into force 6 years before anyone had even heard of Jacob Marley. The 1837 and 1857 Acts reformed the confusing laws that existed before and importantly created the central probate court that has evolved to become what it is today. The law got serious in an attempt to organise the mess.
And yet wills were not commonplace even after the 1837 Act as most families had nothing to leave to anyone on their death. Having something to pass on marked you out as a success – of nobler position. And so that particularly British fascination with inheritance was born – it started off as curiosity as to how much someone was worth on death, who they left their money to and who they didn’t. Everyone enjoyed the shocking tales of disinherited children, secret and half-secret trusts hiding the guineas of the monied philanderers to be given later to their secret lovers and illegitimate children. It was salacious stuff and perfect material for the newspapers of the time.
Whilst the backdrop of A Christmas Carol is barely recognisable to us today, the sentiment and human condition is perhaps not so different? Are the inheritance cases that we deal with today very different to those of 200 years ago? Our newspapers are still filled with the stories of families torn apart, wills forged, spouses and children disinherited, second families, DNA tests – there may be more wills being written now (still less than 40% of the population) but the wealth at stake is greater now than at any time in history.
Whilst the elite Victorian socialites lived off their anticipated family inheritance, in current times many more families live a life in expectation of a windfall inheritance to clear their debt or pay for their own retirement.
It seems to me that perhaps not much has changed at all? Or maybe I am completely wrong – it could be a ‘an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato*…‘
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*A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.