Today’s ‘me-first’ culture only impedes our will power

4 March 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Sitting on the kitchen table is a copy of the document that everyone wants to read. It is a short file – maybe ten pages long – and has a light brown coffee stain next to the staple in the top left-hand corner.

Its appearance gives no indication of its significance, however, to this family the importance of this slender document cannot be understated. The contents of these pages have the power to make some people very happy and to leave others completely outraged.

It is the family will and, unfortunately, any benefits imparted from it will be bittersweet. In fact, the document may well be the catalyst to tear a family in half.

Discussing ‘the will’ is a disconcerting event for many families. It can feel like a premonitory action, as nothing is more awkward than debating a loved one’s estate when they are standing upright on two feet, instead of six feet under.

However, despite the discomfort of such discussions, the will is a necessary document. It is the most effective legal device in confirming the wishes of our relatives, when they pass.

Unsurprisingly, given their importance, Australians have one of the highest rates of will-making in the world. According to the NSW Audit Office, more than 90 per cent of Australians aged 50 or over have a last will.

But far from simplifying the issue of inheritance, will-making can simply herald in an age of bitter family struggles. Stories abound of people caught in a war they didn’t ever want, over wealth they don’t really need.

Currently, my family is stuck in a battle in the courts, with my grandparents’ estate sitting front and centre as the victor’s bounty. This matter is still before the courts, yet it has already affected our family forever.

Such disputes are neither new, nor are they peculiar to my family. Just last month, Jenny Kurg spoke out about the split in her family after the feud waged over the fortune of the famous Collingwood tote operator John Wren.

She claimed that the rift over the Wren inheritance sent her father to an early grave, and left her, her mother and her sisters with next-to-nothing.

Whether you believe that wills are made to be contested or that the wishes of an individual should be sacred, the issue of inheritance will forever be complicated.

However questions still remain, such as why do some of us become consumed with our own self-interest when the time comes to divvy up a dead person’s possessions?

A will can turn a once-compassionate human being into a scrounging creature solely concerned with providing for them and theirs.

Perhaps this is a result of the boom in economic and social conditions since the baby-boomer generation. The endless rise in our quality of life has bred an egocentric age of ‘me-first’, where everybody knows what is best for them and everyone else.

It may be that the advances of the last half-century have sparked a rise in the narcissistic attitudes of individuality that will happily override any loyalty to family.

As the old idiom goes; blood is thicker than water. Yet in post-modern culture, that blood will happily be spilt in the courtroom in the search for increased wealth.

Family members will wittingly declare war with each other based on the comforting basis that they knew that ‘dad have would have wanted it this way’. It’s not about timing either, relatives can be at their worst before or after a loved one is put into the ground.

Struggles such as these are many and they are being fought daily in family courts and tribunals. Regardless of claims to the contrary, rarely do any individuals ever feel content within their efforts. The only team that wins are the lawyers.

He who waits for dead man’s shoes goes a long time barefoot. Or perhaps more appropriately, he who waits for dead man’s inheritance goes a long time in debt. And not just financially.

Tom Cowie is a former editor of upstart, and a final-year Bachelor of Journalism student. This piece was first published in The National Times.