‘To my wife, I leave her lover, and the knowledge that I was not the fool she thought me; to my son I leave the pleasure of earning a living. For 20 years he thought the pleasure was mine; he was mistaken.’
We don’t need to preach to you about the importance of a correctly drawn-up and regularly reviewed Will. In an ever-complicated world it is an inexpensive way of putting you in control of the final destination of your estate and making sure you avoid difficulties for your relatives, business associates and friends after your death…. Or is it?
When you write or review your Will, whether starting from scratch or following divorce or business changes, you are allowed by law to leave anything you own outright to any person or organization you desire. You can even stipulate that the beneficiary must satisfy certain criteria in order to receive assets. For example, you could leave the shares in your business to your son on the condition that he attends 90% of shareholder meetings, gives up smoking or completes his university degree. Far from just being a way of conveying wishes and minimizing tax liabilities, people have navigated these wide-open parameters in many directions, resulting in some truly outrageous Wills.
Sometimes, people have stipulations that allow them to accomplish in death what they couldn’t in life. McNair Ilgrenfritz, a wealthy but unsuccessful composer, left $125,000 to the New York Metropolitan Opera House – if it agreed to stage an opera he had written. Unfortunately, the Met declined the generous offer, even though they found that the music was ‘workable’.
Occasionally, beneficiaries have luck on their side. Onni Nurmi, a Finnish businessman, left 780 shares of a rubber boot company to the residents of a nursing home in Finland. That company later became cell phone giant Nokia, and the residents of the nursing home became millionaires.
Although you can’t, by law, leave assets to your pet, you can make provision for their care. Singer Dusty Springfield had a clause that a bequest be used to purchase a lifetime supply of her cat Nicholas’ favorite meal – imported baby food. It also called for Springfield’s nightgown to line his bed and for her music to be played to him each evening.
Some people are so close to their work that they decide to become part of it – literally. Ed Headrick, an inventor at the toy company Wham-O, is credited with perfecting the design for the modern Frisbee. Ed requested that his ashes be molded into memorial versions of the disc and that the money from their sale be used to open a Frisbee museum.
Then there’s the curious case of the Shavian Alphabet. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw famously included a contest in his will that called for his fortune to be given to the person that successfully created a new English alphabet. The stipulation was that the alphabet be entirely phonetic and not Latin-based. Shaw contended that Latin was not a good language for translating English, leaving us with too many unusual word spellings. The Shavian Alphabet would have no fewer than 40 characters, each one corresponding to a sound. An Englishman named Kingsley Read shared the prize money with four other contestants among 400 entries. However, other hopeful beneficiaries successfully contested the Will and an out-of-court settlement awarded the Alphabet Trust a meager £8,300.
Some people want to use their Will to acknowledge support that has come from outside of the family. When Golda Bechal left almost all of her £10 million fortune to her favourite Cantonese restaurant, she left the recipients in a pickle. The trio had become close friends, spending Christmases together and going on holidays. Furthermore, Mr Man delivered portions of Bechal’s favourite Cantonese dish of pickled leeks from his Essex restaurant to her Grosvenor Square home until her death in January 2004. Bechal’s surviving family vigorously contested the Will on the grounds that she suffered from dementia but the court ruled the couple could keep the money.
Catherine Barr left £2.6 million of her £3.5 million fortune to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). Her only condition was that the RNLI should buy a new vessel and dedicate it to her late husband Dr John Buchanan Barr, a war hero. She said she wanted an inscription on the boat saying: “He saved so many lives during the war.”
It seems some people use their Will as a means of getting their own back on the recipient. When Samuel Bratt died in 1960, he left his wife (who, in life, had not let him smoke) £330,000 on condition that she smoked five cigars a day.
Whatever your situation, if you want to ensure that your wishes will be carried out properly, there really is no substitute for a Will written by a qualified and regulated legal expert… but your wishes don’t have to be complicated. The last word comes from Anthony Scott who, in his Will, wrote: ‘To my first wife Sue, whom I always promised to mention in my Will. Hello Sue!’
Article written by Jenny Pierce, Head of Wills, Probate and Mental Capacity at Wards Solicitors for Lansdown Place Magazine (Feb/Mar 2012 issue).