People don’t like to talk about money, much less money that’s inherited. But as much as it is an extremely privileged situation to be in, there are a bunch of feelings to disentangle when you inherit a large sum of money. Especially if you’re not used to it and don’t come from a wealthy background. You have to navigate the grief you have for the person who has died, guilt for benefiting from their death, and anxiety over what to do with it all.
If you want resources, there are countless articles that explain the administrative process of what to do when someone dies. And there are many other dry personal finance articles that assume you want to maximise your return on your inheritance money. But I couldn’t find much out there that touch on the emotional side of inheritance. So that’s why I want to break the silence and describe the journey I went through. I also ended up doing something a bit unusual and not often talked about.
On 1st November 2019, my grandmother, Annai, died in a care home. We knew it was coming. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for a while. Before then, she had lived a long and mostly comfortable life. That was one consolation. In a way, we were also thankful that she passed away when she did. Just a few months later, and she could have been caught up in the pandemic. Like so many others, she could have died alone and with no one to mourn her at her funeral.
Not long after her death, my gran’s solicitor contacted my parents. They were appointed executors and that meant they were responsible for carrying out the wishes in my gran’s will. At this point, I found out that my gran had left two thirds of everything she had to my dad and the remaining third to me. I’m still unsure why she chose to do what she did. It’s much more common for a parent to leave everything to their child. I was two years old when she wrote that will. It felt strange that she placed so much faith in me, the tiny toddler I was at the time.
I knew my gran’s estate would be sizable. Before she moved into a care home close to my parents, she lived in Norfolk. I would visit every Christmas as a child. I had this impression of her as living in a completely different world to my own with its own set of rules that I hadn’t been taught yet. I never got the hang of laying the table correctly (I still can’t believe fish knives are a thing) and would awe at my school friends that my grandparents had a house “with a dining room!” But I didn’t know the specifics of how much money she actually had.
I was told I would be inheriting over £200,000.
I was shocked. I still feel overwhelmed by the sheer size of it typing it out now. It was much more than anyone expected. My mum was the one who joyfully shared the news with me over a phone call. But I couldn’t share that joy. The knowledge of that money sent me spiralling into a whirlpool of questions and emotions I was too afraid to confront.
I felt deep shame and guilt. I didn’t deserve this money. I hadn’t done anything to earn it. I thought about my mum who worked as a part-time carer and cleaner into her 60s. It was hard, physical work. Every time she would come home exhausted, complaining how sore she was. And yet, her labour wasn’t valued. Only with help of state support could we afford to pay rent and put food on the table. It felt so unjust that I would have this much wealth at the age of 25 without lifting a finger for it.
I also felt like a fraud. I had carved part of my identity as being “the poor one” growing up especially as I was surrounded by middle-class, affluent peers. I did become a lot more privileged once I left home. I got to attend a big name university and later started working in a well-paying industry. I reconciled my identity by acknowledging that I was once poor but am relatively well-off now and extremely grateful for it. But this inheritance chucked another curve ball at me. It felt like I’d been immediately transformed into this out-of-touch rich kid, one of those that I used to envy at school.
It was because of these reasons, I decided to ignore my inheritance. I knew it would take a while for the money to eventually be transferred. There’s a bunch of administrative stuff that needed to happen first which could take up to a year or two. That gave me an excuse to suppress all my feelings and pretend this inheritance didn’t exist.
And I did that for about a year, I went about life as if nothing had happened. I didn’t think about the inheritance looming around the corner and started to forget it existed. I kept it a secret. I didn’t tell anyone except my partner who I anxiously asked at the time, “Do you think of me differently now?” When my parents asked what I planned to do with “my money”, I would say, “I don’t know, it’s not my money” and change the subject.
A year after my gran died, I finally had to confront reality. The solicitor was about to finish tying everything up and my mum was starting to ask more demanding questions. Stuff like, whether I would be willing to give my parents part of my inheritance so they could afford a house.
The few times I did give much thought to my inheritance over the past year, I thought about charity. To be honest, my motivations weren’t entirely selfless. I thought giving to charity would take away some of the guilt I had. But then the question always turned to how much I should give away. I wondered if I would ever feel guilt-free if I kept any of it for myself.
I pondered over what the “normal” thing would be for someone in my position to do (twenty-something working in London). I guessed that most people would want to put down a large deposit for a house. It’s probably the only hope a lot of us have in affording somewhere in this city. But again, I was already in quite a lucky position where it was feasible that I could save up enough someday. I also wasn’t ready to settle down yet and make such a large commitment as buying a house. And the guilt was there too, always lurking.
So my mind came back to the idea of charity. As the pandemic drew on, there was an increasing sense of urgency to use that money to help others.
I reached out to the solicitor who was dealing with the estate and asked about inheritance tax. There is inheritance tax to pay on my gran’s estate because it is about £25,000 (number yet to be finalised) over the threshold. I knew that any gifts to charity wouldn’t be taxed. But I assumed those gifts would have to come out of the estate itself. There would still be tax to pay if I was the one giving to charity.
The solicitor confirmed my suspicions but did offer another solution. He said that we could rewrite my gran’s will as long as it was within 2 years of her death. This way, we could change her wishes to leave some money to charity. He was dubious that it would be worth the savings in inheritance tax. Depending on the size of the gift, it might involve selling stocks and shares that would be better off holding. I told him that I intended to leave my entire share to charity after giving what my parents needed to buy a house. He was pretty taken aback. I realised then that it wasn’t a very standard request.
I began researching charities. And as I did so, I started to become more confident in the choice I was making. I realised that this amount of money could really make a difference to a lot of people. Well, I did know that before but only intellectually. I was so swept up by the guilt and shame that I didn’t give myself much space to feel anything positive about this inheritance. I told myself I had no right to feel good about giving to charity when I wasn’t really the one giving that money. And yet, as I thought about the possibilities of what that money could do, I couldn’t help but start to feel hopeful.
The first charity I chose was GiveDirectly. It’s one that I have followed for a while and have included in my own will. Their mission is simple, to give cash to people living in poverty. When I first heard about them, their mission really resonated with me. A lot of people just need money, they don’t need to be patronised by others deciding how that money should be spent. GiveDirectly is also recommended by groups like GiveWell that compare the effectiveness of different charities. I was also happy to see that they have two response programs for those economically affected by COVID-19, one in Africa and another in the US.
For my two other chosen charities, I decided to look closer to home. One was The Trussell Trust. They are a charity that supports a network of food banks up and down the country. I chose them because, sadly, the need for food banks is only rising.
Another pressing cause I wanted to support was trans folks. The UK is known globally as a hotbed for anti-trans sentiment. A few months ago the High Court made a ruling that effectively denied under-16s life-saving treatment for their crippling gender dysphoria. I say “life-saving” because nearly half (48%) of trans people in Britain have attempted suicide and puberty blockers have been shown to lower the risk of suicide. So that’s why I chose the charity Mermaids. They support transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse kids by providing a secure online community, helpline service, local groups as well as a bunch of other services. They also work in the wider area of advocacy and activism, educating society on gender identity and trans issues.
So, where does everything stand now? A deed of variation is currently being processed to rewrite my gran’s will. Instead of the estate being split by thirds, a sum of money and an entire investment account is being allocated my dad. The rest (about £110,000 - £115,000) is being shared between GiveDirectly (50%), The Trussell Trust (25%) and Mermaids (25%). This means that my dad is getting about £100k more than was originally planned. Therefore, my parents have agreed that any money they don’t need for the house will go to those three charities. Of course, this is an agreement based on trust, it’s not legally binding.
As for me, I’m looking forward to when everything is finalised and the money starts being distributed. I used to feel dread towards that date. I have also let go of most of my guilt and instead am immensely grateful for the gift my gran gave. Not only is it going to help a lot of people, but the inheritance has forced me to think deeply about what I value and who I am.
There are some interesting parallels to draw with my gran’s own story. She inherited the vast majority of her wealth from a family friend when she was still a young woman. It feels kind of poetic that the money she inherited and stored away in assets is finally going to be released into the world and do good.
Looking back over this journey, I don’t think I took the healthiest approach to inheriting all this money. I probably should have confronted it earlier, spoke to people about it, maybe even sought a therapist. But despite that, I am happy with the end result and I know the guilt helped push me towards that. A big learning for me is that I should embrace the guilt more, listen to what it has to say and let it pull me where I need to go.
As a final note, I want to highlight that this is my own story and I am in a uniquely privileged position to be able to give all my inheritance away. If my circumstances were different, if I had dependents, struggled to make ends meet or had aspirations for myself that I couldn’t afford, I might have chosen differently. The relationship you have with the person who has died also has a huge impact on how you feel about the money. If my gran had worked her entire life to give me this money and had specific wishes for how I should use it, I might have gone along with that.