Many years ago (many many many years ago) I worked for a government department in Western Australia that managed deceased estates. The Public Trust Office also wrote up Wills for people. I learned a lot about the technical side of such things, and even more about human nature.
People can behave quite strangely and unpredictably in grief, and also when they are not in the slightest bit griefstricken, sometimes for very good reason. As a human being, it was often sad, distressing or even distasteful. As a writer, of course, it was fascinating fodder.
One of the oddest things that happened, though, was the number of people who thought they would have to come in to the office for the Reading of the Will. So many believed it was an official and even legal part of the proceedings.
Television, theatre and cinema are of course partially to blame for this misunderstanding. (I lay rather a lot of it at the feet of Agatha Christie and other crime writers.) When you see this event dramatised, it’s a theatrical device so you can see the shocked/smug looks on everyone faces when they are cut off without a penny/inherit all grandpapa’s wealth.
However, as with most things fictional, the idea has its antecedants in fact.
These days the beneficiaries of an estate will generally just get a photocopy of the Will in the post to inform them of their upcoming legacy. In the past, though, it wasn’t so easy to get a copy of the Will to the beneficiaries – handwritten copies would have to be sent out, and those done by hand might potentially contain errors.
It might also have been the case, in the past, that the beneficiaries were not very literate. They might need to have the terms of the Will explained in greater detail. It’s likely that some beneficiaries couldn’t read at all. In that case, everyone gathering at the solicitor’s office or in Grand Uncle Bulgaria’s musty library for a reading made a lot of sense.
Will readings were very much a practical matter, then, addressing problems of literacy and accurately conveying the contents of a Last Will and Testament, rather than any kind of legal requirement.
Nobody has a family gathering for the Reading of the Will anymore. Well, unless they have an overdeveloped sense of the pointlessly dramatic and the time to spare for such theatrics.
It’s almost a shame, really. Who doesn’t want to see the look on Cousin Dorothy’s face when she discovers Grandpappy Hubert has left everything to a Cats’ Home with a small legacy for a one-legged seaman who was once kind to him at the train station, or to see blustery Uncle Cedrick, with his bulbous red-veined nose, leaping from his chair with a hoarse cry and a tirade at mousey family outsider Marigold becoming an unexpected millionairess followed by the ominous phrase: “You haven’t heard the last of this, you little tramp!” (and maybe later, either Marigold or Cedric turning up dead at the Mechanics Institute reading room, with a dagger of oriental design plunged into the side of their neck)?
But let’s face it, loss and its aftermath are often dramatic enough, and sad enough, and human enough, without that kind of broo-ha-ha.
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.
[Image by Brian Jackson at 123RF.com]