Would your marriage survive if one of you inherited a fortune?

Would your marriage survive if one of you inherited a fortune – and spent it all on themselves?

When lecturer Fiona Wilde heard that her husband, Pete, had inherited £200,000 from a much-loved aunt, she — perhaps naturally — expected him to use the money to pay off the mortgage on the family home or invest in a rental property to cushion the future of their ten-year-old child.

‘I certainly didn’t expect him to give me a slice of the money, but I did feel strongly that it should be used for something that would benefit us as a family,’ says Fiona, 42, who lives in Gloucestershire.

But Pete, a 44-year-old sales director, decided he’d far rather spend it on a lavish holiday and a fancy new car — for himself.

‘We didn’t discuss the inheritance in any detail until several months after his aunt’s death, when it was finalised by her solicitor,’ Fiona says.

‘Pete made it clear that, despite sharing our finances in every other part of our lives, this was different. It was his money and he wanted to do what he wanted with it. To me, it felt like he was blowing it.’

For Sarah Greeff, 52, her inheritance was indeed the stuff of dreams — but for her husband, not her

Soon, the inheritance was the subject of fierce rows that almost ended the couple’s 12-year marriage. Fiona left the family home for several weeks to give herself — and Pete — a breather, only returning after they had finally thrashed out a compromise.

In the end, he got his BMW and a family holiday in Mauritius… but Fiona also won renovations to the family home — new windows and a kitchen — although there was no money left over to invest in a rental property. ‘We’ve come out the other side now,’ she says.

And yet you get the feeling that it still rankles. ‘Because it was such a large sum, I didn’t anticipate that Pete wouldn’t include me in decisions about it. After all, we own a property together, we’re a couple, we have a ten-year-old child.

‘If ever I inherit anything in the future, I’d feel selfish if I didn’t discuss what to do with the money with him.’

So who is right on this highly emotive issue? Is an inheritance ‘family money’, to go into the joint pot like income from any other source? Or does it belong only to the spouse from whose parent or relative it came?

As inheritances have grown with the price of property, these are increasingly pointed questions. For those expecting to inherit from the Baby Boomer generation, the pot is maybe especially full, with house prices today 65 times higher than they were in 1970. Which may be why so many inheritance disputes end up in court. Although only a third of Britons inherit anything at all, the average legacy for those who do is soon expected to hit more than £200,000 — a life-changing amount of money.

For Sarah Greeff, 52, her inheritance was indeed the stuff of dreams — but for her husband, not her.

When she received a £200,000 legacy after her beloved father died in October 2020, she was consumed by grief and what she now knows was the brain fog of menopause.

Unable to think about what to do with the money, she gave it to her husband of 21 years, Nick, 49, who promptly spent it all on his lifelong dream — a remote Scottish croft.

‘When the solicitor handed me the cheque, I was engulfed by sadness for my dad and cried sitting on the floor of her office,’ says Sarah, a dog trainer and behaviourist, who was living on the Isle of Wight at the time and had cared for her elderly father for two years.

Her sister received an equal inheritance.

‘Unbeknown to me, after Dad died, Nick started looking online for property with land and persuaded me to go and view the 100-acre croft and the four-bedroom house on it. When I saw how rundown it was, I told him we would not be buying it. It hadn’t been decorated since 1980, there was water pouring in through the roof and the heating didn’t work.

Sarah Greeff’s husband Nick, 49, promptly spent all the money on his lifelong dream — a remote Scottish croft

‘But I didn’t have the capacity to think straight at the time and, having realised that it would mean Nick fulfilling a long-held dream to own a property with lots of land, eventually I agreed to it.

‘Had I been single, I’d never have done such a thing. I’d probably have invested in a rental property instead.’

More astonishing, the sale had to adhere to strict Crofting Commission laws, which mean the only person who can benefit financially in future is Nick. The land can never be owned but merely held in tenancy, and the house could only be bought with cash and registered in Nick’s name.

‘We’ve always shared everything, from our bank accounts to our work. But when I got Dad’s money it felt different because it had been his and it was given specifically to me.

‘Dad loved and respected Nick, but if he’d been alive, we’d never have bought the croft house — he’d have thought it was an insane idea.’

Nevertheless, Sarah agreed to take a leap of faith with Nick. They sold their marital home on the Isle of Wight for £350,000 in December 2021, banked the profit and moved to Scotland, where they still live in one room of the as yet minimally renovated property. Having paid experts to install a new roof, electrics and log burners, the couple are undertaking the rest of the renovations themselves.

Nick now works as a crofter and intends to breed from the six cows and three pigs the couple have bought.

Sarah is adamant that Nick spent the money in good faith on a lifestyle change he thought they’d both love. She admits that she loves having so much land as much as he does — if only the house was warm and more habitable.

‘At the time, I wasn’t great at making decisions. I’d lost all my oomph. Just getting out of bed and feeding us both was an achievement.’

As her grief receded, and with an HRT prescription to give her some energy back, Sarah became increasingly concerned about what she’d done. ‘I realised I was deeply unhappy, and when Nick sat down and asked me why, I told him I felt I’d lost control of everything,’ she says.

‘With the croft house solely in his name, it means that if we ever divorced, I’d have no right to the property or the proceeds of its sale, even though it was paid for with my inheritance.’

Feeling deeply uneasy, Sarah began rectifying some of the mistakes she felt she’d made. Using some of the proceeds from the sale of the Isle of Wight house, last month she bought a seven-year-old bungalow near their new home — solely in her name — which she will rent out. Nick, she says, is happy, too, that they each now own a property.

‘It’s resolved a lot of the disquiet I felt. Although Nick and I didn’t row about it, I was concerned about what I’d done with Dad’s inheritance,’ she says.

‘I also worried that the antique furniture, treasured family photos and beautiful pieces of artwork I’d inherited would perish at the croft house, either due to damp or mice. They are all now safely on display in the bungalow. I’m happier and feel that the financial imbalance has been restored now that we each own a property.’

Given stories like Sarah’s, it’s not surprising couples are increasingly turning to the law to protect their inheritance. Joanne Westcott is a partner at family law firm Osbornes in Hampstead, North London.

She says she receives daily calls from those who want to ringfence a future legacy specifically against use by a spouse. Sometimes the parents of a bride or groom will even insist on a pre- or post-nuptial agreement to safeguard an inheritance for their own child.

‘The starting point for the division of marital assets upon divorce is a 50-50 split and that can include any inheritance received during the marriage, which has been mingled, mixed and forms part of the marital pot. For example, if it has been used to pay off the mortgage on the family home.

‘It is, however, becoming increasingly common for one or both parties to insist on an agreement that ringfences their inheritance — whether already received or simply anticipated — and even for the person who will be gifting their wealth, such as a parent, to insist on a pre-nup as a condition of the inheritance.’

Wellbeing company founder Vicky Borman had no qualms about being bullish with the £178,000 she inherited from her 94-year-old grandmother in 2020.

After treating herself to a convertible Mercedes and putting some of the money into her business, she invested the rest in a Grade II-listed mews property which she rents out on Airbnb and owns jointly with her mother. There’s no mention of Vicky’s husband’s name on the deeds.

Wellbeing company founder Vicky Borman had no qualms about being bullish with the £178,000 she inherited from her 94-year-old grandmother in 2020

‘The inheritance made things awkward,’ says Vicky, 44, who lives in Cambridge with her husband, who owns a plastering business, and their three sons aged 18, 15 and ten. ‘We’ve been together since we were 17 and have always shared our finances and assets, yet we both knew without spelling it out that the inheritance was ‘mine’, and I had the right to decide what happened to it.

‘It was the elephant in the room, and although there were no real disagreements, I spent and invested it as I wanted to without seeking his opinion.

‘To be fair, he went along with it, although if I’d done something stupid such as blowing the lot on handbags or diamonds, he’d have had something to say. If it had been the other way around, he would have asked for my opinion on how to spend it.’

Tech company director Danielle Holmes, 36, admits she was in a state of total disbelief when she learned she was to inherit £250,000 after her grandmother died in 2021 in her 90s, and also left money to her two sisters and their mother.

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‘I regularly stared at my new bank balance for about eight weeks after the money had been paid in because I couldn’t quite believe it was real,’ says Danielle, who lives in Wiltshire with her husband, Kyle, 31. They are co-directors of a tech company and each has a ten-year-old child from a previous relationship.

Having shared their finances throughout their five-year marriage, Danielle admits that although she and Kyle pooled ideas about what to do with the inheritance, there was an understanding that she would have the casting vote on all spending.

‘We agreed we would not blow it, but disagreed on how we might put it to best use,’ she adds. ‘For example, some of it was inherited in stocks and shares and Kyle’s view was that we should leave those investments to see how they performed, whereas I didn’t want that sort of financial risk. I cashed them in and banked the money.

‘We also looked at buying a property to rent out but decided against it, and very nearly bought a new home, which fell through.’

In the end, they splashed out on two, no-expenses-spared family holidays — one to Turkey and another to Disneyland Paris —voted for by their children.

‘Then we invested £40,000 in the business and bought a VW Transporter van for our business,’ Danielle says. She also used some of the inheritance to lend her husband the money for a car.

‘Kyle had always dreamed of owning a Toyota Supra and wanted to take out a loan to buy one, but I insisted there was no point getting into debt when I had the means to pay for it outright,’ she says.

‘But we agreed he would pay me back month by month, a decision he was very much in favour of.’

The remaining £100,000 is safely banked in savings accounts in Danielle’s name and Premium Bonds in her husband’s.

‘As we discovered,’ reflects Danielle, ‘there’s no right or wrong way to handle such a huge windfall.

‘But it can be an emotional battleground. Until you have that cheque in your hand, you never know how it’s going to make you feel — or what disagreements it might stir up in your marriage.’

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