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A death in the family

A client came to see me for the first time, accompanied by her mother.The client was attractive, well-groomed and smartly-dressed. Her mother, meanwhile, looked drawn and tired.Mrs X began by saying she felt hot. Could she please remove her jacket and her cardigan? It wasn’t hot at all but my trainee, who was there to take notes, helped her remove them. It didn’t do the trick. The client was perspiring profusely, but this isn’t unusual for those who are stressed about seeing a solicitor for the first time.My client then asked if I would mind if she removed her wig. I hadn’t realised she was wearing one. So with me sitting there, beginning to wonder what this was all about, the client took off her wig and placed it in her bag. She sat through the interview, completely bald, and began to tell me about her cancer. It had been diagnosed at a late stage, she had a life expectancy of about 20 months at most, and she had come to discuss her children’s future.

Mrs X was 38. She had two children, aged eight and six. When he had learned about her cancer, her husband had left her. He had been unable to face her illness, and for many months had been having an affair. He had told her that she could have whatever she wanted from him and that his affair “wasn’t serious”. He simply couldn’t cope. Her concern was not so much about a divorce, as for the children and what would happen to them. She wanted her mother to care for them following her death. She spoke of accepting her terminal cancer but said that without her husband, it felt difficult and pointless to continue to fight.

She spoke so matter of fact and so calmly that it was difficult to take in what she was saying. I have to wear a “mask” when I am talking to clients, which I rarely let slip. Usually it stops me making irrelevant, moral judgements. It enables me to give the best legal advice I can, which is what I am paid to do. This time in particular, I kept myself under very tight control. I looked over at my trainee often during the interview and hoped she would cope. She kept her head down writing the whole time, not daring to look up.

What advice do you give to someone who is dying? All the usual advice about moving on with confidence, rebuilding your life – it was all useless. Instead I gave her advice that I hoped helped her.

Firstly I told her not to give up, to fight for her life and let me look after the legal side. I informed her about the divorce process and the availability of expedited hearings, which would speed up the proceedings. I explained that her settlement would not be curtailed by her terminal illness. She had earned her share during the marriage and was entitled to it. I emphasised the importance of making a will, and severing the joint tenancy in relation to her home. This means that a jointly owned property will not automatically pass to the other owner. I explained that if she set up a trust fund with her estate, to be held for the benefit of the children, she could appoint independent (of both grandmother and husband) professional trustees to administer it. The trustees would have powers to use some monies for the children, and to invest monies to accrue capital for when the children reached 18 or more. I recommended that she leave a letter of wishes for the trustees about her proposed financial arrangements for the children, and prepare a statement of her wishes in relation to the care of the children.

The most difficult question to tackle was who would care for the children after their parent’s death. Neither Mrs X nor her mother, who clearly loathed the husband, wished him to play any major part in the children’s future. The grandmother told me how she planned to take the children to live with her. However, I had to advise her that their father was likely to be awarded the children’s care. I felt it would be better to try and agree beforehand what would happen as I assumed the children would wish to remain in their home – of which the father already owned half. He could – and no doubt would – expect the children to live with him because of their age. However difficult, they had to pull together in one direction for the benefit of the children, who would need all their relatives when the time came. Grandparents will always play a supportive role- but often their age is against them. Mrs X and her mother reluctantly agreed. There is no perfect answer in a case as tragic as this.

After they left, with the client dressing herself and putting on her wig again, my trainee burst into tears. As for me: I sat on my own in silence for about 15 minutes, before I finally felt able to leave my office.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Costs orders in children cases: a solicitor’s dilemma - Marilyn Stowe Blog says:

    […] a lawyer who deals primarily with finances on divorce, I am used to wearing my “professional mask” and not letting my feelings get the better of me. It is rare for me to become emotionally involved […]

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