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Thursday 28 September 2023 Dublin: 13°C
# WIll Power
What is it that makes Irish people fight over wills?
Where there’s a will – there’s a potential family falling out of seismic proportions.

shutterstock_156185702 Shutterstock / Casper1774 Studio Shutterstock / Casper1774 Studio / Casper1774 Studio

IT WOULD BE tough to find a family in Ireland that hasn’t seen a fight over a will at some point or another.

Get-togethers are so often abuzz with talk of a great aunt unceremoniously disinherited, or an uncle, sure of his right to the family farm, passed over for a more favoured sibling.

While anecdotally these conflicts seem commonplace, is there anything uniquely Irish about them?

For one thing, the overall number of people with wills in this country is low.

“It is only three in 10 Irish people who have drafted a will. It is information that really hasn’t improved hugely over the years since we were established,” explains Susan O’Dwyer, chairperson of

Her organisation focuses on encouraging people to make wills before passing away, and to consider a charitable donation as part of it.

“I think there are various reasons [people don't make wills],” O’Dwyer says, “I think people automatically assume that a will means death. Or it is something that they’re too busy for. That they can do another day.”

oscar wilde - 1

oscar wilde - 2

Oscar Wilde left his estate to his son Vyvyan and his friend Robert Ross 

When a person dies without leaving a will, they are said to die intestate – meaning their money and property will be distributed under the Succession Act 1965.

There are some things that the law is pretty firm on – it is very unusual for a spouse to be completely disinherited, for example – but generally speaking, there is plenty of room for interpretation, meaning plenty of room for disagreement.

What is it that makes people fight over wills?

“A lot of the time the actual amount is never really the issue,” explains Mark Small, the managing director of Mediate Ireland. “It is more, ‘I feel I have been treated unfairly’, and they quantify that with the money element of it.”

Mediation works in tandem with the legal process that inevitably follows a death and ideally should allow potential heirs to come to a resolution among themselves.

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Charles Parnell left his estate to his second wife Katharine Parnell (formerly Katharine O’Shea)

While it might seem obvious, one big problem in reaching consensus is that the atmosphere in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death is extremely emotionally charged.

People are grieving, and sometimes past issues arise in the context of a will that really have no bearing on it. They all get sorted out at the same time because people are hurting.

Clare O’Keeffe, a mediator with Succession Ireland, does much of her work in the rural community.

While spouses and siblings may see their share of an estate as directly representative of what they deserve, the reality is a lot more complicated.

“There might be someone with special needs who could be living with their parents, but if the parents move on or die – who will take care of that person? Do they have to be financially able?,” says O’Keeffe.

Whoever gets the family business is supposed to look after this person with special needs – but they might not be the best person to do it. Situations like that do arise.

The land 

Besides the low rate of uptake of people making wills, pitted battles for the family farm are also a unique feature of Irish inheritance disputes.

“I suppose where we are different, and this would come from experience working within the farming community, is that we have this huge attachment to the land,” says Small.

Specific sections of the Succession Act cater for this, and a number of Irish solicitors list it as an area of speciality.

family farm

A section of the Succession Act that deals with farms

“Most of the work we do is succession planning for family businesses,” says O’Keeffe, “A business might have been in the family for a few generations and there would be an emotional attachment to it.”

You’re then listening to the history and the emotional attachment of letting it go from one generation to the next. Listening to and hearing about how this asset came into the family.

O’Keeffe has also noticed gender coming into play on this issue.

The difference in gender is always something to look at. There is a little bit of an unbalance – sometimes. The adult daughters may be the primary carers in the later years in terms of the medical side of things but the assets tend to be favoured toward going to their sons.

What can you do to stay out of trouble?

A person can make a will for around €150 – not much considering the heartache it might save down the line.

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WB Yeats left his estate to his widow Bertha Georgie Yeats (Georgie Hyde-Lee) 

Perhaps the best way to avoid potential disputes is for individuals to include their heirs in discussions over their estate.

“Actually discussing with your loved ones what it exactly is you are going to do, you are reducing the likelihood of any sort of trouble after you have passed away,” says O’Dwyer.

This, she explains, is particularly pertinent when a charitable gift is being included – saying that, “People perhaps don’t understand the impact that the leaving of a gift, not matter how small, can have a big benefit for a charity, and make a difference after a person has passed away.

That is in essence what a will is all about.


Read: What do people in Dublin think of Budget 2016?

Also: Search underway for Irish woman who is heir to fortune left behind by half-brother

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