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Why your Letter of Wishes can be as important as your Will

The many problems that homemade, hand written Wills can so often leave in their wake has again been highlighted by the sad saga of the bitter wrangles over Mrs Pauline Wippell’s estate.

The fallout included rival bids by the executors to remove one another from the role as well as a huge bone of contention arising not because of the Will itself but the Letter of Wishes that went with it.

Sadly, the case had to go all the way to the High Court in Bristol to be sorted out highlighting once again how competent legal advice when it comes to Will drafting can save not only heartache and confusion but in the long run, expense and hassle too.

Background to this case

Pauline Wippell died in 2013 leaving a three-page homemade, handwritten Will, a two-page Letter of Wishes as well as a two-page document entitled ‘Notes’.

She appointed four friends as executors with three receiving cash legacies – £100,000 for a Mrs Taulbut, £10,000 for a Mrs Moran and £5,000 for a Mrs Davey. The rest was to be used to set up a new charity to ‘benefit people with severe facial disfigurement’. Mrs Wippell had herself been the victim of an acid attack when she was 24.

But problems arose because the Letter of Wishes stated that Mrs Davey “may” – and the wording here turned out to be crucial – receive an additional £95,000 from the charity/trust fund if she was widowed “if there is sufficient funds” and “may” also receive the £95,000 if she divorced her husband, although she would have to repay the money if she re-married him.

Mrs Davey refused to agree to the transfer of the residuary estate to the Trust associated with Mrs Wippell’s charity, meaning that it couldn’t be used for the charitable purposes for which it was intended, and also argued that she had an enforceable legacy of £95,000 and should have the money.

At this point the claimants, the other executors, applied to the court for some help and clarification.

What did the court decide?

The court was asked to look at whether the homemade Will incorporated the homemade Letter of Wishes and Notes and whether this made them binding.

Judge Russen QC decided that the Letter of Wishes was incorporated into the Will, because in all probability it was in existence at the time the Will was executed, but that the Notes were not.

However, he decided that Mrs Davey was not entitled to a legacy of £95,000 because it was not clear what would happen if there were not ‘sufficient funds’ to pay it and the Letter of Wishes only stated that Mrs Davey ‘may’ receive the money.

He also said she had obstructed the proper administration of the estate and the court ordered her to be removed as an executor and the residuary estate be transferred to the Trust.

What lessons can be learned?

There are a number of points to consider from this court case:

  • If you want to create a charity, as Mrs Wippell did, it is better to do it in your lifetime than in your Will. This means you can make sure the requirements of the Charity Commission are met and avoid potential stress for your executors;
  • If you want to leave money to an existing charity prepare a carefully drafted Will should be prepared by a legal specialist;
  • Consider carefully who you choose as your executors especially when leaving gifts with conditions attached;
  • Make sure that when preparing a Letter of Wishes, your Will makes it crystal clear whether it is a part of the Will or merely as a guide to its interpretation;
  • Make sure your Will is properly drafted and crystal clear – including Letters of Wishes and codicils – so you don’t inadvertently cause stress and upset to those you leave behind.

For help and advice about making or reviewing your Will, please contact Wards Solicitors’ Wills, Probate and Mental Capacity team.

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