Inheritance System and Care: Queer will-writing

by Dr Antu Sorainen, Title of Docent, Academy of Finland Research Fellow, University of Helsinki, Gender Studies (antu.sorainen@helsinki.fi)

Laurie Anderson, in a recent interview with the Guardian, was asked: “What song would you like played at your funeral?”
Answer:
“Not my problem.” [1] [2]

Even though it is a witty remark, I beg to disagree. Arranging one’s after-life could be of a great benefit for those one cares about. Kinship, care and inheritance belong to the same package. The wealthy always knew this and took care of their economic interests through marriage and bloodline based inheritance arrangements. Not many of those at the margins of the society think that they need to write wills, seek to arrange their financial aftermaths, or indeed, funeral rituals to make sure that their kinship tradition lives. However, those few queer funerals that I have attended, carefully following the wishes of the deceased person, have been really important for the queer community, including at a symbolic and performative level, building and passing on the tradition, history, encouragement and memories of many important aspects of the past and present queer struggles.

In my view, we should actively advocate will-writing among those social groups who traditionally have not “owned” this tradition as theirs, especially under the current neoliberal and conservative political and economic currencies targeting the inheritance system that I will discuss in my next blog post. Activists in the legal field should encourage people to take care of their inheritance arrangements as far as they can, as an important and oft-neglected form of care; in particular, queer care. By this, I mean that inheritance could be conceptualised and re-imagined as not only transformation of property but also as taking care of those who actually matter in one’s life: directed towards friends, lovers, and community. Will-writing offers a pathway to new identifications: we could re-imagine new concepts for care practices that the society tries to hide from the people who do not follow its dominant norms.

Daniel Monk (2013) [3] argues that will-writing potentially offers a site for queer acts. He suggested that they as well as being the scene for an ultimate declaration of one’s final will, provide possibilities for not only to pass on property but also for passing of other kinds of “goods” such as coming-outs, supporting the queer community and/or the chosen family, friends or lovers, disinheriting the possibly homophobic blood relatives, or publicly recognising the “real” care and support relations in one’s life.

Will-writing is a reflection of an ideal of autonomity of the modern individual. If sexually or otherwise marginalised people would look at will-writing as their right to define the posthumous destiny of not only their wealth but also of the well-being of people who they really care for, also outside of the blood relatives circle, they might more often come to think to write wills for supporting their lovers, friends, community, and other real life-carers. In this way, as a mechanism for transmitting property from one person to another, and from one generation to another over time, lesbian and gay wills could have a considerable social and economic significance.

There is a particular purchase to bringing in legal thinking in the study on inheritance and socially marginalised groups since as a discipline and practice it has to deal with different kinds of relationships. The law is the classic locus for situations where categorical and interpersonal relations confront each other: the law deals with persons in relation to categories [4] . When it comes to inheritance, often even a small inheritance has made it possible for many ordinary as well as many famous people to create uncommon, radical, world-changing lives outside the pressure of the normative legal and social understanding of parenting and relationships (Sorainen 2015). [5]

Coming up  in my second blog post:
“I worry about putting my friends in a difficult economic position if I’ll add them into my will”, one of my lesbian interviewees told me. This is a legitimate concern because, in her country, Finland, her queer care and support network members would be subjected for a much higher inheritance tax than her emotionally distant siblings would be.

My next blog-post will consider how, in this way, legal categorizations privileging bloodline and/or marriage often fail to recognize the actualities of non-normative personal lives and the ”chosen heirs”. This is especially prudent as on 27 May 2015, Finland decided to seek to change its inheritance laws. At the moment, if a close blood relative or a friend inherits property in Finland, the inheritance tax is from 8- 36%. But in case of inter-generational family business inheritance, the tax is, on average, only 2,8% of the market value of the company. I discuss the effect of this on the queer community and on the dissemination of wealth throughout society.

References:

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/may/16/laurie-anderson-interview

[2] When I told the anecdote at the opening of this blog to one of my gay male interviewees, he said: “In my funeral, they should play Laurie Anderson’s song Same Time Tomorrow.” The song goes like this: “And so when they say things like “We’re gonna do this by the book”, you have to ask “What book?”, because it would make a big difference if it was Dostoyevsky or just, you know, Ivanhoe.” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePMwwa436ug

[3] Monk, Daniel. 2013. “EM Forster’s will: an overlooked posthumous publication.” Legal Studies, Volume 33, Issue 4 December 2013, 572–597.

[4] Strathern, Marilyn (2005). Kinship, law and the unexpected: Relatives are always a surprise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[5] Sorainen, Antu. 2015. “Queer Personal Lives, Inheritance Perspectives, and Small Places.” Nordic Journal for Queer Studies – Lambda Nordica, a special volume on Kinship and Reproduction, 3-4/2015 vol. 19.

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