Recently I saw a headline that read something like “Man’s life ‘ruined’ after winning $300M”. Initially I found it hard to be sympathetic. But then I remembered our own disappointing brush with fabulous wealth.

Some years ago, my husband Martin announced that he’d been contacted by a lawyer in Berlin regarding the estate of a distant relative from East Germany who died without a will. Naturally my ears pricked up. So did my son’s.

“Which relative?”

“I have no idea. The lawyer said he’s traced the descendants and we’d have to sign something for him to continue his investigations.”

“Great. So can you sign it while we’re here?”

At that very moment we were in Germany on a driving holiday with Sam and Amy, aged fifteen and thirteen.

“I don’t think I’ll bother and Doerte doesn’t want to. Neither does Sabine. These things never come to anything.”

“What do you mean these things? He might have been rich.”

But Martin just shrugged. To my frustration, my husband had inherited his family’s natural default position of suspicion to any unexpected situation.

“Does the lawyer charge to look into it?” I asked.

“No, just a percentage of anything we end up with.”

“So, you have nothing to lose…”

“No, but these things never come to anything.”

We sat in silence watching the winter scenery roll past the car window. Outside the wind from the North Sea roared so ferociously that even my German-born husband was reluctant to stop for sightseeing. Instead, we kept driving with the heating on max. Sam, who’d been mulling over our conversation, leaned forward from the backseat.

“How much money would it be, Dad?”

But Martin wouldn’t be drawn.

“Forget about it, Sam.”

Eventually I extracted from Martin that there were five contenders for the inheritance: him, his sister and three cousins. Sam and I began musing on how much money it might be. Even a modest estate of one hundred thousand dollars would result in a windfall of twenty grand each.

“What would we do with it?” asked Sam.

“There won’t be any twenty grand,” said Martin.

“But if…?” said Sam. “What then?”

“We’d pay down the mortgage.”

Sam groaned. Clearly twenty thousand was not enough. Sam decided he wouldn’t even get out of bed for twenty thousand dollars. Still, I was eaten up with curiosity about this mysterious relative.

“Did the lawyer tell you anything about him?”

“No. He just owned some land and didn’t have any children.”

“What about his name? We could Google him.”

“I told you, I know nothing about him.”

I couldn’t stop my idle ruminations. Land values had gone up in the East, especially around Berlin. Perhaps he’d had a vast acreage. One hundred thousand dollars might be too conservative. Lawyers probably wouldn’t take on a case worth so little.

My thoughts were echoed by Sam, who since he was small, had been fascinated by fabulous wealth. Castles, kings, rich entrepreneurs (even the ones who went to jail) had all captured his imagination. It was a preoccupation I hadn’t shared – until I heard about the Missing Will. Now, Sam and I had a meeting of minds. His argument was convincing – there must be at least five hundred thousand dollars to make it worth the lawyer’s effort. Maybe a million. That sounded plausible, too. Maybe five million. After all, we were always hearing about these Russian billionaires. Why not in East Germany? We settled on fifty million dollars as a reasonable working figure. Martin ignored our calculations as the frozen countryside whizzed past the car window.

Sam and I set about deciding how we’d spend our cut of ten million dollars. We’d give a million to each of my three brothers. Then put aside a million each for Sam and Amy’s future. That would leave four or five million to spend now. Of course, we should give some to charity, but how much? We decided to come back to that later. First to the essentials: a beach house – one with a fabulous view, of course, and not too far away so we could use it all the time. That would be a few million bucks at least. I needed a new car and we’d always talked about extending the house.

“Why not just move to a bigger house?” said Sam. “With a pool.”

“And a horse,” said Amy, who until then hadn’t engaged with the idea. The thought of her own horse changed that. “I’d want to keep it at home, so our new house has to have stables.”

I realised we didn’t have enough money. We had to revise our numbers from the top down. Did my brothers really need a million dollars each? Maybe they’d be happy with fifty thousand. That would free up some much-needed cash.

We covered hundreds of kilometres visiting Martin’s various relatives. They all muttered disapprovingly about the document they were required to sign, but gradually came to the conclusion it could do no harm. Hallelujah!

Our last stop was Berlin. Martin and I had lived in West Berlin for a year when the city was still divided. The fall of the Berlin Wall had had many implications, necessitating complex settlements of estates of families who had been separated for forty years. Martin reckoned that Estate lawyers in Berlin were making lots of money. All the while in the car Sam, Amy and I discussed our amazing windfall and the coincidence of timing that had us there at exactly the right moment. The problem was that no matter how we re-jigged the numbers we couldn’t manage to make our inheritance cover everything we needed.

As we checked into our hotel Martin’s mobile phone rang. It was his cousin in Hamburg. A will for their elusive relative had been found. He’d owned a small farm, a tractor and some livestock. The proceeds would go to his late wife’s family.

“See, I told you these things never come to anything,” said Martin.

After the jolt of disappointment came relief. There were so many things we couldn’t have afforded once we were rich.



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