Where there’s a Will there’s a way!

Where there’s a Will there’s a way!

As always, our life in France is a balance of highs and lows, and of course we’ve had some ups and downs since my last blog entry!

Like a lot of people who make the move, we have left some wonderful people behind, who we miss enormously, constantly missing them on a daily basis – our children mostly of course – but some brilliant friends and family too. But equally, again like a lot of people – we left behind some tricky, difficult relationships, and some of those have sadly deteriorated further since we chose to live our lives in France.

I’m a firm believer though that people will always find their “tribe” – those people who are meant to be in their lives and those who are not meant to be in their lives will leave it somehow.

I spend a lot of time pondering my relationship with my dad, not least because our house stands of the land where his house should have been – if his dreams had come true. It was his sad departure from this world that afforded me and Martin the opportunity to buy James (half-brother) and Stephen (brother) out of their share of the land, and then to create our own dreams here.

When things go wrong, I sometimes left myself believe it is Dad’s way of saying “oi! What are you doing there?!” from beyond the grave. Sometimes there is even a feeling that he might not have wanted me and Martin to be here – maybe he would have preferred it if James and Nic had chosen to make this move – but equally I know that this is something James and Nic do not want to do at this stage of their lives – they are much younger than us and working full time. So, it makes me happy to know that we have created a home here that (once the world has reverted back to normal) will be a place that they can come to for holidays with Henry and Chloe (our nephew and niece) and be reminded of Dad and Ann’s dreams whilst they are here. And also, the rest of our family and those good friends who have stuck by us will also be able to come and spend time with us too.

I feel so strongly about this land, and the house being in our family FOREVER (so that the lives of Dad and Ann are honoured) that our recent findings about French succession law, inheritance tax, and joint property ownership nearly broke my heart.

It’s only now that it is being resolved that I can put into words just how close we came to feeling we had made the biggest mistake of our lives.

So, our plans are that when one of us dies, the other one will continue to live here. And then when that second one dies the four children (2 each) will inherit the house and it will become a holiday home for them to share. After having hopefully spent years coming out here to spend time with us on holidays, they will have by then become very fond of this house and the area and probably made holiday friends out here too. Ideally none of them will ever want to or need to sell it so it can stay in the family forever and their children will in turn enjoy it – and be told that the land once belonged to their great granddad Dave, and that Grandad Gruffalo (Martin’s nickname) and Nanny Sharon were the crazy people who built the lovely house.

When we actually looked into it, we realised that our Wills would be tricky and would be needed to be written carefully, using our legal right to have UK Succession Law applied to it. This is because in France the default position is that the spouse only inherits 25% and the children inherit the rest – and by having an “usufruct” the surviving spouse has the lifelong right to life in the house. This was not ideal – but we felt that would be acceptable.

Then we looked at French inheritance tax – this is brutal – if step children inherit anything at all they pay 60% tax on their share!! Yikes! That would basically result in them needing to force a sale – thus ruining the dream for everyone else – and (although we would be dead by then) our wishes would not be carried out.

It then got even worse – we realised that, whilst in the UK our property was jointly owned – here in France, because the land was in my name (as when I had bought James and Stephen out it had been done that way) this meant that Martin owned absolutely nothing!! Not the land – but more importantly – not the house either.

That in itself was bad enough – but on a day to day basis that just meant that our arguments would always be interesting and I would simply yell at him “Oi you!! Get orff my land”. But the grim reality was that if I die – Martin would inherit nothing – my kids would inherit the house – Martin would cease to have the right to live there and his kids would be disinherited!!

Now, I am fully aware that there are some parents who would think nothing of disinheriting their step-kids, or even their own children, grandchildren, cousins and so on – but not me!! I really don’t have much time at all for people who do that to their own family – although I know of a few people who have done this – often over really petty things too. But I think it says more about them as a person that it does about their relatives to be honest if even from the grave, they wish to hurt people.

So, this really weighed heavy on my mind – although I have to say Martin really took it in his stride. I was often laying awake at night imagining all sorts of horrible scenarios – whilst he was peacefully snoring beside me.

We had a number of frantic conversations at our “Notaire’s office” with lovely Candice – with me trying my very best in “Franglais” to explain that this was “tres tres importante” and I was “tres tres worried that je suis mort et Martin would be homeless”. Candice assured me that I would not die with the cheerful optimism that only a young person can possibly have in a global pandemic. She said that it was possible to remedy the situation but that it would (obviously) cost money to do so.

Then the shock came – the cost would be a percentage of the house value!! But Candace didn’t know what percentage it would be. We said (hopefully) “hundreds not thousands???” – she shrugged, looked awkward – and we knew in that moment – this was going to have been a monumental cock up on our part!!

We had to have the house formally valued – which thankfully was done on the current, unfinished state of the house rather that what it will be worth one day (if we ever complete it!!). I have never known a house valuation to have been quite so focussed on getting the value down as much as possible – although judging by the way the “immobiliere” and his colleague took it in their stride they were used to this sort of thing. Probably because there are so many harsh, horrible rules about inheritance in France – some of these laws go back to Napoleonic times so no wonder!

With the valuation completed, it was just the appointment to be made for the legal deeds for the gifting to be done. The reassurance from Candice that we could get an urgent appointment did however, as is always the case in France, quickly turn into frustration when we realised that “urgent” meant – ONE WHOLE MONTH away.

We spent the next week or so worrying ourselves sick – trying to work out from various websites what the percentage might be – and in doing so thinking all sorts – maybe 20,000€ – we felt sick.

We confided in good friends who were of the view that the Notaire probably made it sound as if it would be huge amounts of money so that when it was only (ONLY!!) a few thousand or so – we would be grateful and relieved.

I insisted on having conversations with all four of the kids, in the off chance that should the worst happen and I did die, they would understand that this had not been our intention. All four of them were fantastic!! They all shrugged it off and said “you haven’t done this deliberately”. Thank goodness that we have such lovely children, and that they are relatively comfortable and mature enough to deal with having conversations about not so nice topics.

I know how it feels to be left in doubt as to the motivation and reasons for being left out of a parents Will and feel it is really important that these things are explained properly, as there is nothing worse than hearing a false reason from a person who has no idea of the reasons but just wants to play mind f***ery with you. In my mind the reason that my brother and I were not in our Dad’s will was quite simply that after divorcing my mother many, many years before and leaving her with a property, and then him being remarried to Ann for over 40 years – it made perfect sense that he would leave it to Ann, and then in turn she would leave it to James. But, a particularly malicious person decided that they would tell me that it was all done to spite me, which obviously hurt a lot. But I still choose to believe my version of events and in any case, now we have found out just how complicated it is to leave non-blood relatives any property in France no wonder they tried to do it so that James would inherit it from Ann. They made the (wrong) assumption that Dad would die first, then Ann – but of course she sadly died before him. I completely respect their wishes – but, I do sometimes wish that Dad had spoken to me about it – which takes me back to my own need to have absolutely everything crystal clear with our own four children. No way would I ever want any single one of them feeling that way.

We insisted on a breakdown of costs as soon as possible as by this time I wasn’t sleeping properly over it – and as predicted by my lovely friend – it wasn’t so bad – yes, it was an amount that we could have well done without- but some of the costs would be entailed anyway – and the extra bit on the increased value from the land to the unfinished house will be a lesson learned by us for the future. My kitchen (if I ever get one) will be a daily reminder of how many mistakes we have made on this house building project. What was once a huge budget for a dream, luxury kitchen has now become the most basic of kitchen cupboards (but at least I had the sense to ringfence my range cooker which is safely installed in the temporary kitchen).

So, the appointment was on Friday and it went fairly smoothly. It was all in French which was very difficult, but we managed – a far cry from when me and James sat with the Notaire to do the original exchange of ownership back in 2017. Anyway – it’s all done now – the house and the land is in both names – and the Wills are in hand, and are going to be sorted out this week. Thank goodness for that!!

I realise that talking about Wills is something that some people just don’t like to do – it means facing their own mortality which is something that us humans just don’t like to accept I suppose. But I’ve always felt it to be healthy to talk about wishes for what happens to us when the time comes – in all aspects. I think this is largely due to the sort of work I have done. I have been involved with all sorts of things surrounding death, bereavement, anticipatory grief (that terrible time when you know someone will die but they haven’t died yet) because of work and also because I ran a support group back in the UK called Living with Dying. I also wanted to do the training as a Death Doula/Soul Midwife (like a midwife but even of babies entering this world – people leaving this world) and for a time I toyed with becoming a Funeral Celebrant.

I think that a funeral is the perfect opportunity to take a true 360 degree look at a person’s life – with partners, family members, and friends standing up and saying a few words, sharing stories about the person no longer with us. It must be wonderful to be a recently passed person standing witness at their own funeral and hearing how loved they are and hearing people laugh about their lives. But of course, that is more of a Celebration of Life than a traditional funeral service – but I know which I would want for myself – the party that I never got to attend.

We sadly had another funeral recently, although unlike our neighbour who sadly took his own life and was young, this one was a much older person who had been lucky enough to have a long, long life.

Both funerals made me reflect (again as they also do) how I would want the end of my life to be handled, and my funeral wishes. Martin has known for a long time that there is a folder on my lap top which gives full and explicit details about songs, flowers etc. But more than that – how I would want to be treated as I approach the end. I think an ideal death would be to be surrounded my loved ones, hearing their voices, listening to my favourite music, at home in my own bed, and when the time was right – being allowed to slip peacefully away with Martin, and my children holding my hand.

Me and Martin have made a pact that we will do our upmost to avoid a lonely, impersonal, prolonged death for each other.

We are also going to look into the French equivalent of an LPA (Lasting Power of Attorney) so that we can make sure that any wishes we each have concerning medical care are adhered to. This is especially important in these times of a Global Pandemic – with so many people being admitted to hospital ALONE and then being placed on a ventilator.

Although it must be difficult to feel that you are giving up your medical decisions to a partner or a family member in my view that is far preferable to giving up that control to a medical professional who has no idea of what my preferences would be. So, I’ll take my chances that Martin (or Ryan or Sian) won’t try to have me put in a nursing home – I’m sure they won’t!!  And in any case, I have made my daughter promise me all sorts of things – smuggling me out of dementia homes in France if necessary!!! And I am absolutely confident that they will make sure that I get a proper send off in the form of a Celebration of Life that was about ME, and my wonderful relationships and funny stories, the songs I loved and why I loved them, and my favourite food……and that they will ask my friends who knew me before they were in my life to share stories about me with them so they get the whole story of my life – that’s what I believe a funeral should be about!  

People get so isolated through anticipatory grief, and bereavement because people can’t handle talking about it – so I have always been determined to not be “that friend” who crosses the street to avoid talking to someone. I pride myself on being the sort of friend who is prepared to listen to anything without judgement, and without bringing my own agenda. I’m hoping that once this Covid-19 shit-fest is over I might be able to get more involved with Cancer Support France as a volunteer and I contacted the President of the Dordogne branch recently. It will be good to use some of the skills that I have acquired in the past and put them to good use. And who knows – maybe one day I will do that training to be a Death Doula – or a Funeral Celebrant.

So, back to some of these tricky relationships. The ones we have let go have been mostly so called “friends” who showed no empathy with us in all the issues and challenges we have been facing since making the decision to live in France – especially surrounding the uncertainty of whether we could stay or not. It’s been hard to get a balance between telling people how it is (“you are always making me feel guilty for voting to Leave”) or concentrating on the positives (“they are always bragging about living in France)”. You just can’t win with some people – and it is people like that who it is far healthier to simply let go – they don’t “get you” or understand what you are hoping for in life anymore – and that’s fine. And of course, it’s not just past relationships from people in the UK that are tricky – just because over here we are all migrants doesn’t necessarily mean that we will find relationships with others always run smooth. In fact, some of the worst offenders have been fellow expats – some of which gloat over those who are just finding their feet, or are jealous because they are new people around who may be having the fun that they once had when they were a little younger. Of course, we try with all the people we meet – but some of them you just can’t gel with no matter how hard you try. C’est la vie!!

There have been so many times over the past 2 and a half years where we have been so, so frightened that we have spent our life savings on a house that we would not be permitted to stay in – and the people who have understood that have stuck by us, egged us on, supported us when we have felt wobbly, and most importantly not belittled or down-played our worries. Thank goodness for great friends who are prepared to listen– they save us a fortune in therapy!!

But this week we finally got some respite from our worries about residency. Back in September last year we made our online applications for Residency Cards – but shortly afterwards, due to the Withdrawal Agreement being settled, the French Government closed down that application system saying they would be waiting until more details before opening again. So…. another period of uncertainty came upon us. Then the opening was delayed from July – but eventually finally got opened in October. True to their word the French Government did indeed process the applications that had been made in that short window back last year – so we were one of the first to be contacted. We needed to submit a little further information about our business activity and income which we need really quickly and then we were invited to an appointment in Perigueux – the capital city of Dordogne – to have our fingerprints taken and submit a photograph.

When the announcement was made that we were going back in lockdown we did fear that our appointments might be cancelled – but luckily everything went to plan and we went off to Perigueux on Wednesday.

Photo credit: Erick Orgibet – our lovely French friend

We left plenty of time for the 1 hour 20 minute journey in case we were stopped by the “gendarmes” (which we weren’t), or could not find parking (which we did) or if we simply couldn’t find our way – but with the ingenious and humorous signage that the people at the Prefecture put up all the way along the roads this was not a problem either!!

The appointment went very smoothly (all in French) and we were told that our cards will be posted out in about “one month – possibly two” (which is standard for France). We will get 5-year cards initially and then at that point we will get permanent ones.

So, all that remains to say is this:

To those people who have listened, and heard our stresses and worries and have stood by us, supported us, egged us on, gave us your shoulders when we needed to cry – thank you so much – without your love, support and friendship we would probably have given up a long time ago.

To those people who have laughed and mocked us when we were scared for our futures, or just not wanted to hear our concerns, or pretended it was not happening to us (only the other thousands of Brits making the mass exodus to the continent) – thank you too – it was better for us to have seen your true colours before we were given the opportunity to include you in this new life – you don’t deserve to be part of it – thank you for the lesson in life that you have provided us with:-

Those who made the bold move to live in another country before the EU Referendum were brave, resilient, it is not for the feint hearted at the best of times. This choice requires flexibility, a spirit of adventure and personal sacrifice.

Those of us who made that move during the Brexit shit-fest are all of the above – plus a little crazy, very stubborn, and perhaps at times a little bit pissed off with some people.

But, as all of us have shown: –

“Where there is a will – there is a way”.

Sharon and Martin – Happy and Legal (if a little skint) French Residents