A colleague and I were recently discussing the affairs of her large extended family, where one of the patriarchs is nearly a hundred years old. “His properties are going to be a real mess," she sighed. “All the children are going to fight, and I don’t think anything is written down. Thank goodness we’ve got everything settled among ourselves in my family." She has a sister and two brothers.

“Oh, that’s good," I said. “So they’ve made a will and written everything down? You’ve seen the paperwork?"

“No, no," she said, “they haven’t made it all yet, or at least I don’t know if they have, but it’s all understood between us."

No, no, no, no, no! Ladies! I come to you today to say: Forget “understood", forget trust, beware of those who say you shouldn’t bother your pretty little heads about boring things like money and wills and documents and medical forms and insurance and banking and stocks and shares and cabbages and kings. You should and must worry your pretty little heads.

I knew an extremely wealthy woman who told the whole world she was leaving her house to an orphanage. She hated her siblings and was damned if they were going to get a penny. One day, as people are wont to do, she dropped dead. Unfortunately she hadn’t made a will yet, so her siblings are now in possession of the house and the orphans remain mansion-less.

People all over the world fight over inheritance—from multimillions in the bank to your phupi’s wedding dupatta, we yearn to hold on and grab, out of love, greed, or both. In India, with all the confusion around civil versus religious law, it gets even more complicated. I’ve seen perfectly secular cousins go all self-righteous and invoke the Shariah when it comes to dividing the inheritance with their sisters. And when nothing’s written down, it becomes difficult to resolve things.

Knowing what’s in the will won’t necessarily mean everyone gets a fair share. But at least you know what you can expect. Stories of women who didn’t worry their pretty little heads and got a shock down the road are much more common than stories of women who got unexpected windfalls from a death or divorce. If, like me, you were a sucker for either Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer, you surely recall many a scene in an elegant English library where a will is read and a woman gets the fright of her life when she realizes she’s lost her house, her future, her freedom because of some financial arrangement nobody bothered to inform her pretty little head about. I could tell you some great stories about wills and inheritance and extremely surprised women, but I might not get invited to certain people’s houses for dinner if I divulge them here, so I will refrain.

If nothing else, asking some questions about finance and paperwork would be an interesting exercise. If you ask and are met with anger, that means something. If you ask and are met with amusement, that means something too. But you have a right to ask. And if anyone tells you you won’t understand, well then, find someone who will help you understand. If anyone tells you it’s not your business, they’re wrong.

My parents, like most couples, had clearly defined roles for most of their marriage. Although my mother is a financial whiz, my father dealt with all the banking for decades. This worked very well until one terrible day when he lay in a coma and we had to get money out of the bank to pay the hospital.

“Madam, you cannot sign. Your name is not on the account," said the bank officer to my mother.

We borrowed some money to tide us over. When my father woke up paralysed on the right side, he signed a cheque with his left hand and she triumphantly took it in to the bank.

“Madam," said the bank officer, “this is definitely a forgery!"

In the Wild West of the Western Ghats, people are grabbing land all around us. Forged papers, fences built when nobody’s looking, or kul—laying claim to the land by planting rice. In the villages, even illiterate tribal women tend to be aware of the importance of having the correct papers. Are you?

Do you know how your parents’ estate is going to be divided? If you’re married, do you know what would happen if death or divorce comes knocking? To your children, to your home? If you’re single, do you know your net worth, and do you have your bank manager’s mobile number in your contacts?

If you don’t know your own net worth, ask. If you don’t know which bills arrive in the post and how to pay them, find out. If you don’t know the combination to the safe, learn it. If you own property, and don’t know what will happen to it when you die, find out. Because you will die, you know. If you don’t have a will, write one. Don’t forget to check the fine print. If you can read this newspaper, you can do that.

I’m truly flattered you’re reading my column, but it’s almost finished now. You’re free to go check out the papers in the safe, the file on the computer, the correspondence from the lawyer. If you don’t get answers, or feel intimidated into silence, think about asking someone for help: a friend, a lawyer. It’s your right, and, if you have anyone else’s interests to safeguard, it’s also your duty.

Wills and bills, forms and clauses; paperwork rules us all. Why not make a resolution on this nice monsoon Saturday morning to get your affairs in order, and then live many long and contented years?

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

Also Read Sohaila’s previous Lounge columns

Close