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Unmarried Couples, Children From Previous Relationships And Lack Of Planning For The Inevitable - What Finding Alice teaches us

ITV’s new Sunday night drama, Finding Alice, may appear far-fetched, but it highlights a number of themes we, at Martin Tolhurst, frequently encounter.

Harry, the 48 year old property developer, has died unexpectedly. His family, while attempting to come to terms with the grief they are experiencing, are also faced with financial insecurity. 

Harry died without leaving a will, and although Alice repeatedly refers to him as being her husband, they were not in fact married to each other. As a result, Alice has no automatic legal right to benefit from his estate upon his death. His entire estate would have, at first glance, passed instead to his daughter, Charlotte - until a hitherto unknown son from a previous relationship of Harry’s turns up on the doorstep at the end of the first episode... Under the intestacy rules, the estate would be divided equally between Charlotte and her newly discovered half-brother. 

Alice should seek legal advice in relation to submitting a claim against Harry’s estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975, in order for provision to be made for her as his cohabitee.  However, this can be a costly and lengthy process.  Harry could have ensured that Alice would benefit in the event of his death, by providing for her under the terms of his will.

Harry was the family’s breadwinner, and, as is often the case, also managed the family’s finances. Alice is unable to access Harry’s accounts after his death, as they were frozen upon his death.  Alice cannot afford to feed herself and their teenage daughter without resorting to asking family for money. The only bank account they held jointly was a current account, into which Harry transferred funds from his sole accounts.  Had these bank accounts also been in joint names, Alice would have been able to continue to access them as they would have passed to her by survivorship automatically upon Harry’s death, so even without a will, this type of financial planning could have helped Alice’s situation immensely. 

Adding to the financial maelstrom caused by Harry’s death, was the discovery that the family home was not in Harry’s name.  Harry had transferred the property into the names of his parents to avoid the risk of him losing it if his business failed. Transfers of properties to avoid payment of creditors, or with the aim of avoiding inheritance tax or care home fees can have unintended consequences, such as Harry’s parents having the right to sell the property against Alice’s wishes, and can have punitive tax outcomes. Furthermore, such transfers can be considered to be intentional deprivation of assets, and the person having made the gift is still treated as owning that property, rendering the transfer pointless. 

With so many of us nowadays carrying out online banking and holding digital assets, it is crucial to maintain a record of those assets elsewhere.  Alice attempted to crack Harry’s iPad passcode and finally discovered it to be “1, 2, 3, 4”. Many relatives are not that lucky and can often never gain access to the digital assets owned by their loved one. The Law Society recommends that digital assets should be included on a Personal Assets Log.

Careful financial planning, making a will and seeking appropriate legal advice will help to ensure that you do not leave your loved ones in financial insecurity, and give you and them peace of mind.  Had Harry been better prepared for what comes to us all, his family would have been able to grieve but without all the unnecessary added stress and worry. 


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